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How Smosh Evolved From Pokemon Videos To A Multi-Media Brand

Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla have grown their YouTube channel into an empire that now includes a feature-length film.

How Smosh Evolved From Pokemon Videos To A Multi-Media Brand

Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla‘s mugs may not be plastered over Sunset Blvd. the way that other YouTube stars like Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart‘s are, but the duo behind Smosh are every bit as big in the YouTube universe. The two friends, who met in sixth grade in Northern California, started posting parodic, self-mocking videos online in 2002. (Time has called them the “SNL of YouTube.”) Three years later, they became an overnight phenomenon on the fledgling platform known as YouTube when they put up a video of themselves lip-synching the theme song to Pokemon.

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Over the course of a decade, Smosh has grown into one of YouTube’s most clickable networks. The brand’s five channels–Smosh, Smosh 2nd Channel, El Smosh, Smosh Games, and Shut Up! Cartoons–have over 35 million subscribers. Smosh itself has over 20 million followers on social media. With their Justin Bieber hair, jeggings and Jack Ass-ian antics (sample videos: Which Pokemon Would you Bang? and Hot Pepper Karaoke), it’s no surprise they’ve struck a chord with YouTube’s young, largely female audience.

Rabid popularity aside, the Smosh guys have been YouTube pioneers in other ways, too. Realizing that YouTube’s ever-changing algorithms meant that it was dangerous to be too reliant on the platform if you were going to make it your career (which they did), way back in 2006 they turned Smosh.com into a self-sustaining website and business. Today, Smosh.com receives 18 million views and accounts for two-thirds of the duo’s business. In addition to videos, the site peddles Smosh T-shirts, posters, stickers, and trucker hats.

Now, Hecox and Padilla are pushing the boundaries again, with Smosh: The Movie, a full-length feature that premiered online on July 24, on outlets like iTunes, Google Play, and Xbox. The film, which was produced by Defy Media (which owns Smosh) and Awesomeness TV, puts Hecox and Padilla in league with other YouTube stars such as Helbig and John Green, who have managed to grow beyond their YouTube footprint. Helbig, who has a cameo in the Smosh movie, recently launched a late-night talk show on E!. And the new film Paper Towns is based on a book by YouTuber Green, who also wrote The Fault in Our Stars.

The Smosh movie is not the first of its kind. (Remember Fred: The Movie?) But it’s one of the first full-length YouTube films that was made entirely on its own terms. In other words, as a dyed-in-the-wool YouTube project, not a Hollywood version of a YouTube project. Hecox and Padilla had full creative control of the film, and worked closely with screenwriters Eric Falconer and Steve Marmel, as well as director Alex Winter (Bill of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). Aside from some censorship wrinkles courtesy of the MPAA, the movie they made is as true a reflection of their sensibility (whether it’s your bag or not) as their DIY videos. Even the film’s plot is an unbridled homage to YouTube, as well as a meta commentary on the fantasy vs. reality tension inherent in homemade videos. Hecox and Padilla star as “Anthony” and “Ian,” two YouTubers who enter into the YouTube universe (via a Star Trekian portal) in order to try and take down an embarrassing video of Anthony at their high school reunion. Parts of the film were even shot at the YouTube space in Los Angeles, where the guys confront “Mr. YouTube,” the company’s fictional CEO, played by Michael Ian Black, who has a penchant for exposing his private parts.

Hecox and Padilla recently spoke to Co.Create about their unplanned path to YouTube stardom; evolving into a real business; and being chastised by the MPAA.

THE UPSIDE OF BOREDOM

The budding auteurs, friends since sixth grade, started making videos right out of high school, from their homes in a suburb of Sacramento called Carmichael. “We were just bored one day and Anthony had borrowed his dad’s crappy little web came,” says Hecox. “We made a video lip-synching to the Power Rangers theme song and uploaded it to MySpace.”

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They formed Smosh in 2002, originally, as a forum for themselves and their classmates. “We started making more videos, originally they were all lip-synching videos,” says Hecox. “But we felt like we wanted to try something original, so we stopped making theme-songs and started doing original sketches. It was not something we planned on doing, but we found we really enjoyed it. Making comedy and seeing the response to it–people saying it was funny.

“Back then “nobody knew about YouTube. We found out about it early because someone had taken our Mortal Kombat music video and pirated it and uploaded it onto YouTube. We asked the person to remove it and uploaded our own. It was a Pokemon theme song video. It made it to the front page and quickly rose to be the most viewed video on YouTube that year. That’s what launched us.”

TURNING VIDEOS INTO A BUSINESS

By 2006, Hecox and Padilla realized making videos was a viable career path. But relying solely you YouTube rev-share grosses was a risky business, given that YouTube regularly changes its algorithm, affecting how videos surface on the site. With the help of Barry Blumberg, the former president of Disney TV Animation, the guys turned their attention to expanding Smosh and turning it into a multi-media empire. (Blumberg is now chief content officer at Defy Media.)

“Barry saw the potential of Smosh and our audience, and he worked with us to make Smosh into something bigger than just two guys making videos on YouTube,” says Hecox. “He focused on making Smosh a destination, we we could actually support ourselves. At any point, if YouTube chose to change their algorithm, we could be gone the next day. So we built our own system.”

That system includes a merchandise line, mobile apps, and Smosh spin-off channels like Shut Up! Cartoons and Smosh Games.

CREATING A WORK STRUCTURE

As Smosh matured and become more than just a hobby, Hecox and Padilla developed a work routine that allowed them to regularly churn out new material. Since founding Smosh, they have produced over 3,000 online sketches.

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“We’re always in various stages of production,” says Hecox. “We have a set schedule. We have videos scheduled for the next month or two. We learned years ago that going week by week is just insanity. We release two videos on our main channel a week. That doesn’t include behind-the-scenes videos or things for our second channel or Smosh Games.

Padilla says the pair shoots an average of four videos a week. “When we shot the movie, we had to shoot our videos way in advance, the month before we shot the movie,” he says. “We didn’t want to upload videos while we were making the movie, but we wanted to keep our audience happy.”

Back in the day, says Hecox, “several years ago,” the pair split all creative duties according to their strengths. “Anthony was the better editor,” he says. “He would do more editing and punching up the scripts that most of the time I would write. So together we’d do an outline, then I would write the script and he would punch it up. Now we have an editor, so we work together more in the same capacity.”

FROM SHORT TO LONG FORM

“We always though it’d be really cool to do a movie,” says Padilla. “And our audience has been asking us, ‘Hey, where’s the movie?’ Fast forward to last year and AwesomenessTV said, ‘Would you be interested in making a movie?’ Of course, we said yes.”

The pair knew they wanted the film to be related to YouTube. “It’s such an integral part of our lives. It’s where we got our start. So we started from there. We worked with a writer, Eric Falconer, and kind of put together an outline with him. He turned it into a script. Then after that first draft we worked with him, punching it up and giving him notes.”

The film’s characters are alternate reality versions of its creators. “They’re similar to our characters on YouTube,” says Padilla. “But there’s much more depth and evolution. So in the movie I’m more concentrated on furthering myself and my career while Ian is cool to just chill and be happy where he’s at. They’re extreme versions of ourselves.”

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Hecox says while the pair script out all their sketches, to be able to focus more heavily on character motivations was something new. “It was fun to be able to focus on a longer piece of content,” he says. “Our main preparation was just memorizing a 90-page script. That was definitely different. We’re used to working off of a 10-page script at most. We would always run our lines for whatever scenes we had that next week. We shot in 18 days. Over the course of three weeks. So each weekend before the week of shooting, we’d get together with a coach and another guy and run all our scenes for the next week, to make sure we had it all down.”

OFF-LINE LIMITATIONS

“Working online we don’t have to deal with any ratings board,” says Hecox. Not so when making a film, which the Smosh guys experienced first-hand. Wanting to be true to their online personas, they threw in a fair share of raunchy humor, including a screen name for Hecox’s character, “Big Rock 69,” which he uses in the movie when commenting on videos by his online infatuation, a skimpily clad blonde known as Butt Massage Girl.

The MPAA deemed “69” unacceptable for a PG-13 movie–the rating Hecox and Padilla needed in order to reach their core audience–so they were sent back to do edits.

“It was a little disappointing that we had to change things that we didn’t think were that bad,” says Hecox. “They gave us an R rating at first. It just gave us a taste of what the MPAA feels is unacceptable. Extreme violence is okay for a PG-13, but you can’t say ’69.’ Even though there was no allusion to the actual sex act. It’s just a number. So it was just interesting, it gave us a taste of the kind of politics behind movie-making.

“We also had to cut out some discussion about the specifics of Mr. YouTube’s wiener (a running joke in the movie). We had to tone it down a bit. And we had to cut out a sex machine in the video arcade, as well as some minor language stuff.”

In the end, the Big Rock joke was not completely lost. The name was simply changed to Big Rock 91.

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety.

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