Freddie Wong has proven YouTube is a place where you can produce high-quality content, and even profit off it. He’s turned his millions of loyal subscribers into crowdfunding investors, gotten major sponsorships from big brands, and worked with everyone from Comedy Central’s Key & Peel to action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Even his fashion sense is a nod to individuality: His signature leather jacket and jeans combination is often finished off with open-toe sandals.
He started off making shorts at USC—now he’s on Netflix.
Right now he’s filming the final season of Video Game High School. Wong and partners Matt Arnold and Dez Dolly want to turn their RocketJump production company into a major content creator and release multiple series a year. I spoke to the filmmaker on-set in Studio City, Calif. about his next step and the state of YouTube.
How difficult is it to create a project like Video Game High School on YouTube?
I very loosely categorize YouTube into three overall content categories. I call category one viral video things: everything from rushing dash cams to a dad with his kid doing something funny and he pulls out his iPhone and takes a video of it. Or something crazy happens, protests in Syria, the kind of stuff that is captured in the world by the fact that we have so many cameras. One of the side effects of that is that most viral videos that go out, that’s category one stuff. The other side of it, category two stuff, there’s thought and effort put into this production. So any of the gaming channels, these guys are putting equipment together, or daily vlogs, they’re doing some editing. And the third category is, for example, Marvel put out a trailer, or a Godzilla trailer just came out. Or Machinima shows, VGHS arguably. And even category two stuff—sort of like weekly shorts type of stuff, there’s effort. The key distinction for me comes down to money. Category one doesn’t cost anything to make. Category two costs some money.
Is VGHS supported by AdSense?
I would say category three you can’t support on YouTube’s ad infrastructure right now. Category two stuff you’re looking at a brand deal and they come in and do it, or just use AdSense, and that can support you up to a certain point. And there’s a lot of good content in that world. What we’re doing with Video Game High School, and what I want to do and continue doing, is stuff that you can’t just support off AdSense. We did the calculation for how much season one or season two costs. And we were like, yeah if we want to make our money back on that just off AdSense we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions.
Can you share what the budget is?
The full breakdown is on our site. We break down each series by season.
Is it to scale?
Yeah. Where we really save is on the post-production because we do a lot of it ourselves and we don’t count that. If I’m editing it, I don’t count that, it’s just me doing it. And a lot of the stuff we’re doing digital effects wise, we’re trying to be smart about it and cut the cost in that way. But at the end of the day, it’s way cheaper than television but more than the usual YouTube video.
Would you say it’s fair to say, based on the way you have to fund, you can’t wait around for a Google check for CPMs and AdSense?
What it comes down to is it’s part of a greater whole now. I think some people can live entirely off of what they make on YouTube, which we were doing for a bit before we were doing longer-form stuff. But now in order to facilitate anything bigger than any weekly or bi-weekly short videos, you have to figure out other ways of funding it. And a lot of the more successful YouTube guys have all figured that out. Even look at guys like Wong Fu Productions, right? They have a very robust merchandise thing going on. They have a whole clothing line and stuffed animals. So they diversify out their source of income, which I think a good business has to do.
Tell me about your distribution model.
Season one and two is on Netflix right now. It’s still available on YouTube and our site, but then Netflix took over territories around the world. It just becomes a little sticky with that stuff because a lot of time when you’re talking about online streaming, you’re talking about windowing and where it’s first, who else has it, exclusivity, all that stuff. For us, we’ve always wanted to make a place where you can just get it, see it, for free. Because at the end of the day if you really want to see it, you’ll see it for free. If you want to see something in this day and age, it’s there.
We want to do more shows like this. This is our last season. We’re going to be doing more series on top of this. Not spin-offs, actually completely different things. We have a whole sci-fi action show planned, we have a horror show thing going, so we have a whole bunch of long-form series, but the challenge for us has always been how do you—how can you make it make sense in terms of just financially? Because, again, we’re kind of in this weird place where it’s very difficult to get the kind of money that we’re talking about. Even if it’s not that much compared to traditional, to do this type of show.
What options are you looking at besides crowdfunding?
It’s always been a combination. Season one and two and three has always been a combination of private money, of AdSense, crowdfunding. And every season, not this one yet, has had a sponsor come in. So season one we had Monster Energy Drinks. Season two we had Dodge.
For product placement?
Product placement, stuff like that. The problem is with that, it’s inherently limiting. You don’t just say let’s do this project. You’re always waiting for someone else to do something which is ideally not where you’re at. We started off doing quick, one-off action shorts. That’s where we built our audience. But now, I really want to be able to do this next thing, which is do shows. To do feature-length stuff. To do TV-length stuff. And that’s what we’re treating this as. As far as a web series we do each episode like a half-hour television show.
If it is about funding, if a studio or a network comes to you and says we want to give you a deal, would you go that route?
Well yeah, of course. Here’s the thing: When you say the regular route, there is no regular route anymore. What it really comes down to—is there a scenario that makes sense? We’re not just a regular-director for hire. We’re not just some production company in Hollywood.
How do you stay motivated?
We find ourselves in a situation where we have full creative control over everything. That’s a scenario that a lot of directors try to spend their whole careers to get. We’re fortunate that we already have that ability. And there’s compromises we have to make, because we don’t have as much money to play around with as these other guys. But being able to have ownership of what we’re doing and creative control, that’s why I got into filmmaking. That’s the motivation. I want to make movies. And I’m not making them for anyone else besides myself and my friends. You don’t need any other motivation that that.
Do you have someone in the industry you emulate?
Throughout the course of film history there were so many examples of guys who did something different. Like Charlie Chaplin—he had such creative control over everything he did and his output was so good. It’s always difficult to go against the traditional ways of doing things, and that’s what I want to emulate.