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How Homegrown Production Empire, Rooster Teeth, Is Gunning For HBO and Netflix

The wildly popular production company has its sights set on entertainment domination. Can they manage that without growing too big too fast?

How Homegrown Production Empire, Rooster Teeth, Is Gunning For HBO and Netflix
[Photos: courtesy of Rooster Teeth]

Austin Studios sits right in the middle of Central Austin. It’s a few hundred feet away from a brand-new supermarket, two municipal swimming pools, and hundreds of mixed-use housing in a newly developed residential community. It’s nestled just off of a stretch of 51st Street that, if you drive by, looks like old warehouses and overgrowth just waiting for a condo developer to swoop in and remake it into something befitting all of the recent activity in the area. People who drive past and wonder what the future holds for the innocuous-looking former airplane hangar–on the site of what was Austin’s airport until the late 90’s–are missing something important: The future is already happening, right there. After all, that’s where Rooster Teeth is.

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It’s hard to overstate the boom happening with Rooster Teeth. The production studio and distribution network started in 2003 when CEO Matt Hullum and creative director Burnie Burns founded the company with a pre-YouTube web series based on Halo called Red vs. Blue. They quickly grew beyond that–into more series based on the graphics engine of video games, at first, and by 2009 into live-action sketch comedy in series’ like Rooster Teeth Shorts, and by 2013 into the original anime-style animation RWBY. From those beginnings, Hullum places the number of original series that Rooster Teeth now produces at around fifty.

Matt Hullum, Co-Founder and CEO of Rooster Teeth

There are also video games–what started with a Halo offshoot expanded into mobile games and a forthcoming video game adaptation of RWBY–and podcasts, and a massive online community.

Along the way to building Rooster Teeth into an Internet phenomenon, Hullum and Burns built it into an IRL phenom, as well. The company’s RTX convention series, which launched in 2011 with 600 guests, has grown exponentially with each passing year–the 2015 version brought 45,000 people to Austin for panels, screenings, exhibitions, and more. (In January, the brand goes international, with RTX Australia launching in Sydney.)

All of which is to say that, when you get to Austin Studios, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Rooster Teeth has all but taken over the space. Austin Studios was built in 2000, run by Richard Linklater’s Austin Film Society, and these days, Rooster Teeth–not Linklater–is the largest tenant. “At the moment, they have seven stages, and we’re in all of three [of them], and part of stage four,” Hullum says. “So at the moment, it’s literally fifty percent.”

Hullum notes that one of those stages is a temporary thing while they’re filming a show–“But when that finishes, we’ll probably have another show that we need to shoot over there,” he says–which actually brings up a problem for the CEO. Normally when we talk about companies being victims of their own success, we’re talking about companies who are growing too big to sustain what they do. Instead, Rooster Teeth is worried about growing so large that they’re too big for everybody else to be sustainable.

“This probably isn’t sustainable for Austin Studios,” Hullum acknowledges. “I don’t want to take up every single one of their stages. One of the reasons we like being here is that we like having other tenants, and people who can come in and mingle–we were attracted here because we like the idea of a creative hub.”

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The idea that Rooster Teeth might suck all of the creative air out of the room is unlikely–at the very least, Hullum and Burns are too conscious of their intentions for that to happen by accident–but it does highlight one of the unique challenges that face a company whose growth is genuinely unprecedented: Rooster Teeth wants to remain a unique, innovative, flexible company whose content is driven, at least in part, by its fans and its own creative impulses–but as they’re growing, they’re moving out of the space occupied by other companies that make web series, and very much into a space occupied by competitors like HBO and Netflix. So how do you pull of both of those ambitious goals at the same time?

Giving The People What They Want

When Hullum takes me on a tour of the sound stages at Austin Studios that Rooster Teeth is occupying, it’s a few days after the world premiere of Lazer Team, the company’s first live-action, feature-length film. The film premiered not at an RTX event but at Fantastic Fest, an Austin-based genre film festival hosted by the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain, and it was well-received by the sort of audience that is pretty fully in Rooster Teeth’s wheelhouse–people for whom a premise like “a bunch of small-town losers get superpowers and have to be a superhero team,” mixed with some book jokes, is basically the second-coming of Ghostbusters. The reception was enthusiastic enough that it convinced Hullum–who directed the film, with Burns in the lead role–that its future isn’t just on digital platforms, but in movie theaters.

“We’re definitely pushing for a theatrical release,” he says. “The reviews have been awesome so far–though maybe I’m the wrong person to brag about that, since I directed the movie. But people know us as Internet guys, and there is this distinction still between traditional media, the film world, and what we do online. But I feel like the film community has had an open mind to us, and to the film, and I really feel like it’s a kind of movie that should be seen in theaters.”

Hullum stops short of explaining what that actually means in terms of how Lazer Team will be distributed–if he intends to push for a theatrical release before letting Rooster Teeth’s fans watch it on their laptops/tablets/gaming systems/phones/etc, as they’re accustomed to enjoying the company’s content–but it’s clear that, when considering the challenges Rooster Teeth faces as it grows, balancing those ambitions is on the list.

“We’re a progressive company, and our ideals in terms of content delivery are progressive, so we want people to be able to see it no matter what,” Hullum says. “The most important thing for us is we want people to be able to get this movie and enjoy it and experience it. We try to be like we always have–platform agnostic–with the caveat that it’s cool to go to the movie theater.”

Hullum is hesitant to say more–when I push him for a release date, he just says “Winter,” and when I ask if he hopes to day-and-date release both online and theatrically, he just says “We want to do something that’s a little bit unconventional”–but delivering Lazer Team to fans in the manner they want it isn’t just good business. It’s also a promise that the company made to the people who funded the film.

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Lazer Team sits at #4 on the crowdfunding charts for movies–behind Veronica Mars, Super Troopers 2, and Zach Braff’s Wish I Were Here–with $2.48 million raised by 37,493 people in a month. A $25 “digital supporter” reward was good for “a digital copy of Lazer Team once it is ready for release,” which was just one of the perks offered to backers. Others were rather more extravagant–a $10,000 donation nabbed an executive producer credit, with three visits to the set, opportunities to appear in other Rooster Teeth productions (they sold twelve). $6,500 got backers a set visit and a co-producer credit on IMDB (two were claimed). 39 people paid $400 to receive a voicemail from their favorite Rooster Teeth personality; 1,521 claimed $300 “ultra sponsor” packages with hoodies, signed DVDs, mugs, posters, t-shirts, and their name in the film’s credits. 1,619 people gave $5 with no expectation of anything at all in return. A $5 perk, intended to award one lucky fan a walk-on part on the campaign’s last day, ended up glitching and resulting in another 535 people purchasing the reward (the assembled fans all appear in a crowd scene).

In other words, giving people what they want is important with Lazer Team in ways that it isn’t for most media companies. Fans obviously trust Rooster Teeth implicitly–they got over $8,000 from fans who just wanted them to make the movie with no strings attached–which puts them in a unique position. They got where they are by following their own instincts, but now they have to navigate those instincts in a way that rewards the fans who are very explicitly paying to see what they’ll come up with next.

“We feel like whatever we make, we want to stay true to ourselves, and we know that will please the core, because we know already that we’re in tune with their sensibilities, and vice-versa,” Hullum says. “There’ll certainly be ideas, I think, where we really love something internally, but maybe it’s not the biggest, broadest-reaching kind of thing–and then you do have to make a decision like, ‘Financially can we support this? Are these resources really best spent here?’”

Looking To The Future

The soundstage that Rooster Teeth uses for their main office at Austin Studios is massive, and divided up into places for the various employees, based on what they do–animators in one area, on-screen talent in another, writers in another, game developers in another, etc, etc. Almost all studios have some element of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to them, just because they’re full of creative people making things, which means that there’s never a shortage of props or sets, but Rooster Teeth goes the full Wonka–it’s clear, from the green-screen room to the area they use for filming unscripted video game talk shows, that people are having fun there.

Except Hullum, except today–today, he’s got a stack of hundreds of Lazer Team posters that he has to sign for Indiegogo backers. Burns’ name is already on every one of them. “It took me hours,” Burns says as he walks by us.

If the perils of success are limited to “how do we grow without overtaking the studio we rent space from” and “managing carpal tunnel from repetitive motion from signing so many autographs,” there are probably worse fates. Hullum and Burns don’t have to worry about their audience deserting them–their crowdfunding campaign grossed more than four times its initial goal, and their fans are so enthusiastic that they can literally just show up in Australia and expect tens of thousands of them to show up–which means that right now is largely a time to see just how big this could get.

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That’s not a question of “how much money can we make,” necessarily, or even “how much content can we put out.” If Lazer Team–a theater-ready live-action feature–is any indication, the goal is less “let’s just keep getting bigger,” and more “let’s see how great our shows can get.”

To that end, Hullum is excited to talk about two new shows. One of them, the new Rooster Teeth Entertainment System, Hullum describes as “the most ambitious live show” the company produces.

“It’s basically a cross between Saturday Night Live and Real Time with Bill Maher,” Hullum says of the show, which is hosted by Key & Peele vet Colton Dunn. “We have a lot of pre-produced digital sketches and animated shorts, and then a range–we’ve got a comedy monologue, we’ve got a band, we’ve got a round table of comedians. We’ve got writers from Comedy Central and Saturday Night Live. It’s really a big production. That’s every Sunday night on Rooster Teeth–you can watch it on the app or on the website, if you’re a sponsor. And we’re going to be doing more stuff like that.”

When Hullum talks about “if you’re a sponsor,” he’s referring to the company’s subscription model, which evolved from a $20-a-year program that gave early access to episodes of Red vs. Blue to a $16-every-six-months plan that gives viewers full access to everything Rooster Teeth does. The company mixes that–which Hullum refers to as “premium” content–with a slew of free-to-watch, ad-supported material.

“We’re almost like two networks, in a way, because we do all of this ad-supported programming, which we’re going to continue to do, and which we enjoy doing,” Hullum says–while there’s also the growing focus on premium content. Ultimately, Hullum sees Rooster Teeth growing into something like a combination of Comedy Central or Cartoon Network and HBO or Netflix.

“I think that’s fair,” Hullum says when I ask him if his goal is to rival HBO. “We have these bigger, more ambitious goals and projects and series that we want to do, and those are primarily going to end up behind our subscription service, so that will very much be like an HBO model. I think we could very easily look like HBO, but for the millennial audience. This is the audience that we want to serve, and we feel really passionate about storytelling in this space–and there’s not really anybody else doing it. Our audience has always said to us that they want more premium stuff, and we feel like now we’ve really got the tools and the capabilities to bring that to fruition, so by God, we’re going to do it.”

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Putting It All Together

Here’s a luxury you get if you’re a first-time feature filmmaker who also happens to run a full production studio–when you’re envisioning the FX-heavy scenes and multiple shots you’re going to need, you can just walk over to the animation department, and have them make you some killer storyboards.

“I used several animators from here to do all of the previews. Three or four of them were complex action scenes in the movie, and I kept thinking–this is going to be a big crew, the biggest crew I’ve ever worked with, and we’ll be shooting at night. It’s going to be hard. I don’t want to take too much time explaining that I need this shot, then this shot, then this shot, then this shot,” Hullum recalls. “So we just made animated versions of all of it, because I had an animation team right there. I spent like two months with those guys, just making animated versions of all of the really big, difficult-to-choreograph action scenes, and that’s what enabled us to shoot this in the amount of time that we did. It was like forty days for our total shoot time. With the amount of action and stunts we have in this movie, it really should have been more like eighty.”

That’s the sort of thing that Rooster Teeth can do that few filmmakers–anywhere in the world, working at any level–can get away with. How many directors can just reassign a portion of their animation department to creating mock-ups of the shots he’s going to need to reduce shooting time?

How many, for that matter, can just expand into another building in the pre-fab studio they rent space in from the local Linklater-led film society, when they have an idea that requires more room? Or can say, “we have this new idea for a movie, and even though we’ve never made a movie before, we think you’re gonna love it” and end up with nearly two and a half million dollars to play with? And that, ultimately, is what makes Rooster Teeth so unique: Because they’re a massive, entity that, in terms of audience numbers for original, premium content, deserves to be in the conversation with HBO Now or Amazon Prime, if not Netflix, but they’re also an operation where the people at the top are also the top people making creative decisions, and they’ve never disappointed their audience with those decisions–they’re not playing with house money, but they’re definitely riding an unprecedented hot streak that’s more than a decade deep at this point.

Before long–probably around the next RTX, but who can say for sure–that’ll result in yet another attempt at breaking new ground from Rooster Teeth. They’ve got animation down, both original and Machinima-based video game adaptations. They’ve got live-action comedy figured out in a way that delights their subscribers, and it seems highly unlikely that their cinematic ambitions are going to stop at Lazer Team. But they’re also looking at that signpost of cultural cache–the prestige TV drama–for their next project.

“Probably the most hotly anticipated show we have is called Day 5. This is one that we’ve talked about with the audience before, and we actually shot a pilot for it that we haven’t released–we just did it internally,” Hullum says. Day 5 is very much of a kind with what you might find on SyFy or Amazon Prime at this point: “It’s a drama about a world in which there’s an event one night at 3am, and everyone who’s asleep dies. And then everyone who falls asleep after that point dies. So the survivors are the outcasts of society–the insomniacs, or working the graveyard shift, or the ne’er-do-wells doing something after hours, and everybody’s trying to stay alive long enough to figure out what happened, so they can save themselves.”

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True to its name, Day 5 picks up on the fifth day of the apocalypse, and is told through both flashbacks and a frenetic forward-moving story–Hullum describes it as “a 24 meets Lost vibe”–that’ll air in a first season of six to ten thirty-minute episodes next year.

Hullum and Rooster Teeth develop material with a lot of confidence, and the odds are that the same audience who like their jokes in Lazer Team and their anime adventure in RWBY will probably also like their prestige drama in Day 5, too. At the very least, they’ll be on board to see what they come up with. And Hullum, for his part, recognizes what an opportunity that presents.

“I hope that we don’t ever take the audience for granted. They’ve been extremely supportive, and the thing that they’ve shown time and again is that we we do bigger or more ambitious things, they reward us for it. I think the only times where we’ve been out of sync with our audience is in not pushing ourselves,” Hullum says. “There’s a Henry Ford quote that I like a lot. He says, ‘If I had given people what they wanted, I would have made a faster horse.’ You have to evolve it. You have to see what it is people are asking for, and also read between the lines on that. There’s always another way we can evolve.”

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About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club

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