The first time I discovered YouTube it was to check out a friends short film he had posted to the site. It was a very no-budget 80’s b-action movie rip off. The acting was bad, the story was very basic and the special effects didn’t really exist. But it was a very interesting concept. Broadcast yourself. As a budding filmmaker I was excited for the potential. A world where indie and low budget filmmakers could showcase their works to the world. I immediately grabbed my camera, a group of friends and set out to produce a talk show where we would discuss comic books, video games and movies. I set up a desk, lights, microphones the whole nine yards. I was expecting to utilize this new technology to really capture that dream of alternative, user created content that would lower the barrier of entry.
I first started to notice things weren’t quite going as I pictured when I noticed the insanely popular viral video of two dorks lip syncing to the Mortal Kombat theme son g. While the short video was entertaining, at least good for a chuckle. I was shocked to learn the two who uploaded the video shot to super stardom almost over night. Of course I am referring to Smosh. It soon became a race to be the next viral super star and thus the race to the bottom began. There was that Numa Numa video, Soldier Boy Tell Em, and a host of other copy cats. I hadn’t lost hope yet, I still felt there was a budding film making industry just lying in wait.
Then YouTube was bought out by Google and everything changed. Suddenly the need to get millions of hits in order to attract ad dollars meant that the need to make quality videos that required true creativity was replaced by quick videos to cash in. Sure some decent productions managed to slip through the cracks, but even those had to rely on a gimmick. Shows like Angry Video Game Nerd, Pat the NES Punk and Nostalgia Critic, among dozens of others, quickly resonated with audiences.
Partly cashing in on nostalgia and partly adapting to the changing audience, review shows quickly became the prominent format for the quality film makers to get their product out there. Some, such as the aforementioned Angry Video Game Nerd, would slip in their more creative short films onto their channels as specials or filler to tide their audiences over while they worked on other projects. Others, like Pat the NES Punk embraced the narrative format from the beginning finding creative ways to mask his reviews as miniature episodes of an extended parody show that focused on a character that was obsessed with Nintendo games. Before too long the AVGN videos would also weave narratives and production values into his videos with story lines that spanned entire seasons at times. This continued into the Board James series, a show that reviewed old board games.
In the years following review shows have become a powerful force vying for the attention of the fickle YouTube audience. New short forms of videos have sprung up such as vlogs, unboxing videos and long form videos exist in the form of Let’s Play’s. The haven for budding film students to showcase their creative works was quickly supplanted by culture of becoming the next big viral video.
This presents a problem for the budding filmmakers. Some of these review shows formed out of the need for the film makers to hone their craft of writing narrative videos and editing them into coherent stories while masking them as review shows in order to find an audience. Some of the creators, such as James Rolfe himself, have stated their original desires were to be actual filmmakers and they originally used YouTube as a means to showcase their works. Many of them even uploaded videos outside of YouTube before they realized it was the platform of choice. But has doing so stifled their creativity shoehorning them into roles they might otherwise have been able to break out of had they not fallen into the trap?
The complexities of YouTube’s ever changing advertising policies means that content creators who are in it for the money have to constantly be adapting to what the advertising giant requires. Google makes all of their money off ads and in recent months they have come under fire from advertisers to take a stronger stance on content. This, in turn, has forced the content creators to again adapt their videos to the changing landscape. Many of the review shows do have hints of great, very creative TV shows hidden within them. The trouble is how does a creator, such as Rolfe or his contemporaries, break the mold and release content that doesn’t rely on them simultaneously reviewing a product most don’t even remember that fondly? Even when you look at the AVGN videos, the best videos are the ones where the review takes a back seat to a more compelling narrative story. Perhaps the only way to make great quality videos on YouTube is to build an audience doing review shows before slowing moving onto other types of content?