Three years ago as I sat in a crowded arena in Anaheim, an entire summer’s worth of a babysitting funded VidCon lanyard fastened securely around my neck, Shay Butler and Corey Vidal premiered the trailer to their documentary, Vlogumentary. Fast forward to 2016 and I’m on the red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival for the world premiere of the film. Life is wild sometimes, huh?
As are the perks of being a member of the press, I was fortunate enough to get a screener of the film ahead of the April 20th premiere. Although the energy inside the actual theatre was electrifying, there was something satisfying about seeing this work for the first time on my computer, from the comfort of my own room–the very place I had first been introduced to these people more than five years ago.
When I discovered the world of YouTubers, the summer of my 17th birthday, I was not in a good place. Overwhelmed by all aspects of life, I quickly fell into a lonely and pre-mature quarter life crisis; I was unsure of what I wanted, what I was passionate about, or how I would achieve anything in my life. Then, one fated night in the early hours of the morning, I discovered CTFXC.
As is the way of the infamous YouTube vortex, I somehow stumbled on a video of a young guy, whom I would soon find out was Charles Trippy, proposing to his girlfriend, Allie Speed. Captivated by the way they invited their viewers into the most intimate moments of their lives, I was instantly hooked and I subscribed to his channel that night.
As the months progressed, I fell deeper into the world of vlogging; I subscribed to more and more channels, watched as people seized opportunities that sprang from their bedrooms, and connected with other ‘viewers’ through the magical world of Tumblr. Over time and as subscriber counts climbed into the millions, YouTubers were propelled into mainstream fame with an almost rockstar-like following.
The longer I watched, the more I began to admire these people. I found myself infatuated by the instinctive creativity, ambition, and passion–traits I’d also carried with me my entire life. As I watched these creators chase their dreams and achieve unprecedented success through unconventional routes, something inside me was ignited, and I thought, why not me? Soon after, I started my writing career.
Over the past few years, I have established a pretty intimate home in this community–a place that I have grown to love and find solace in. I’ve attend YouTube events around the world, gotten to know YouTubers personally, and have been presented with unbelievable experiences through the friendships and contacts I’ve made, including the opportunity to cover my very first red carpet at Buffer Festival thanks to Corey Vidal, the co-creator and co-director of Vlogumentary.
I’m not a vlogger, I don’t have a channel, and I don’t make videos, but YouTube has opened more doors for me than I can count and I am eternally grateful for the site and the people. So, standing on this red carpet, at one of the biggest film festivals in the world, chatting with and celebrating the achievements of people I’d ‘known’ for half a decade, felt almost full circle.
While the evening was exhilarating and seamless, the road here was not as smooth. After filming for the greater part of three years and accumulating more than 200 hours of film, Shay and Corey found themselves at a crossroad, unsure of which direction to go or what story to tell. Enter Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian that rose to fame through 2004’s Super Size Me.
“Shay and I met and he said, ‘I have this thing I’ve been working on. Would you be interested in coming on board?’” recalls Spurlock as we chat before the premiere about his role as executive producer. After hearing the synopsis, he was eager to get involved in telling this story, which he describes as transformative. “There were so many interviews and so much footage and so we said, ‘Okay, let’s use this as the jumping off point. Now what’s the story?’ From there, we went back and started locking in people that we thought made the most sense for our narrative, from Shay to Trippy to No Fun Gaby Dunn. People that I think represented a great cross section of what the [YouTube] world stands for and I think what we captured is a great window into this universe that people don’t quite understand.”
In just over an hour, Vlogumentray has the potential to grab hold of anyone–YouTube fan or not. Interweaving stories throughout most corners of the community, this film shows us just how diverse the content on YouTube is. With the inclusion of clips and interviews from almost 50 creators, we see a different side of YouTube–a side full of insecurity, uncertainty, and vulnerability that make even the biggest creators seem human again. More than that though, this film acts as an educational piece about how YouTube works, where this phenomenon came from, and what it actually means, and takes, to be a vlogger.
“At first, I didn’t know anything about this part of YouTube,” admits Matthew Testa, co-director of the film. “I thought YouTube was where you went to learn how to unclog your sink or something like that. I’m part of Gen X; I didn’t know about this world. But, when you start to hear about the connection these creators have to their fans, you start to realize that there is something very special going on here.”
After reviewing the footage initially, both Spurklock and Testa agreed that the driving force of the film would be the personal trajectory of Charles and Shay, two OG daily vloggers who have been making videos for almost 8 years.
Over the course of their time on YouTube, we’ve seen both Shay and Charles’ lives transform. For Shay, we watched his family grow (two births) and grow up. We saw his life change forever by overcoming almost $200,000 in debt and becoming a multi-millionaire following the sale of his company, Maker, to Disney.
“I think the real question of the movie is, ‘How do you be a real person who is relatable, but also have this be your business?’” Shay proposes. “It seems to take away the genuineness when people realize you’re making money off of this, because people start to question your motives. But the things that I check every day aren’t my bank account or how much I’m getting. I’m checking how many thumbs up I have or I’m refreshing Twitter. I’m always checking connectivity and engagement–I want that connection with people and I want to read their comments.”
“That connection is the key,” says Colette, speaking to the dynamic between creator and viewer. “If I know they’ve been watching for a while, I sort of get a sense of who they are and what their values are. If they value us and have stuck with us for that long, then we kind of are family–it’s like, ‘I know you.’”
“The second I meet these people, I know they understand me,” continues Shay. “They know where I’m coming from, so it’s easier to talk to those people because we already have inside jokes. I could say something like ‘loofus’ and we just met two seconds ago, but they’ll be like ‘Oh, I know what you’re talking about.’ So even though we might not have ever talked to that person, in a sense we have been talking for the last 7 years.”
As for Charles, who has vlogged every single day for the past eight years, we stood by him through two brain surgeries, chemotherapy, the unfortunate collapse of his marriage to Allie Speed (something that rocked the community to its core and is addressed in the film), and then watched as he fell in love again.
“I started YouTube because of a bet with a friend and I still haven’t gotten that case of beer,” joked Charles thinking back to the start of his career. “He lucked out though, because I don’t drink anymore.”
While sharing everything with their loyal audiences seems like second nature at this point, it does take some getting used to for the people who have entered their lives post vlogging. “I’m still getting accustomed to it. I mean, we’ve been together going on 2 years, and honestly I’m still trying to open up more,” admits Allie Weiss, Charles’s fiancé, whose introduction to the community was met with a less than warm welcome. “It was really hard at first. Obviously if you follow the channel or see the movie, you’ll understand a little bit of just how hard it was. But, I’ve really grown to love it. The YouTube community is a giant family.”
The changes in their personal lives weren’t the only thing documented in this film; we also saw how the platform itself has grown alongside them. To put the scale of YouTube into perspective, the latest Google analytics show that as of January 2016, nearly 300 hours of content is uploaded per minute. That means that it would take you 12.5 days to watch everything that is uploaded in just one minute.
So, how do you draw your audience and new viewers to your video when there is so much out there? “I wish I could have everyone on YouTube in an auditorium and just sit them down and say, ‘Alright guys, let’s talk about clickbait,’” says Charles. “Would you see your favorite movie if the title was called Untitled Movie 346 and it’s just a white poster? No. It’s marketing; you need to have an interesting title and the picture to draw people in–especially in the world of YouTube.”
Allie jumps off his point: “Exactly. I feel like a lot of the time people say it’s clickbait, it’s not really clickbait. It’s something that happens in the vlog; it’s just a pronounced title. For instance, one time I had to get my ring repaired, and we said ‘Took the Ring Back!’ and we did; we took the ring back to get fixed and it was just ‘clickbait, clickbait, clickbait,’ all over that video.”
“See,” Charles continues, “if I called a video ‘dick windmills’ and I didn’t do dick windmills, that would be click bait.”
For anyone who loves YouTube or knows absolutely nothing about it, this is a must-see. It’s a peak into the good and the bad of the new frontier of entertainment and shows us why those who haven’t quite caught up yet should be taking this medium very seriously.
Vlogumentry is now entering its distribution agreements and there is no information on how, when, or where this film will be shown.
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‘Vlogumentary’ Documents the Rise of the Vlogger: Photographs courtesy of Sunshine Saks and Zimbio