That Ryan Higa has drawn over 3.6 million views to his latest YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) creation isn’t surprising; his videos routinely amass cable-sized audiences as the site’s most-subscribed channel. But some of the other stats on “Agents of Secret Stuff” explain why this 20-year-old is angling to become the biggest Internet-bred sensation since Fred Figglehorn.
For one thing, that 3.6 million was reached in just six days. It typically take 2-3 times as long to get that many eyeballs to see the sketch-comedy bits he both acts in and produces for what is YouTube’s most-subscribed channel, called Nigahiga.
A silly espionage spoof targeted at teen viewers, “Agents” is billed as a film, which may sound a little strange considering it’s just 35 minutes long. But that’s long-form video by YouTube standards, where a breed of popular young personalities known as YouTubers typically stick to five minutes or less per episode.
But more screen time requires more money to produce and hopefully make back and then some, which is why Higa now has some professional help in his corner. George Strompolos, who handled content partnerships at YouTube until he left in September to start his own firm working with the artists, and Digital Artists, a CAA-repped digital studio, are producing “Angels” (along with Wong Fu Productions) with an eye on making sure Higa doesn’t get burned. Though just a college student, he’s already produced two other long-form videos that frustrated him by either not generating profits or losing creative control.
“He’s been approached by a number of traditional entities who probably want to fit a square peg into a round hole and that’s not what we want to do,” said Adam Shaw, co-founder and CEO of Digital Artists.
Keeping Higa happy has meant taking the unconventional step of launching “Agents” on his own YouTube channel sans sponsor. That’s not how Lucas Cruikshank, patron saint of YouTube talent for breaking through as helium voiced Fred, made his long-form debut. “Fred: The Movie” took the more traditional, glamorous route of launching on TV via kids channel Nickelodeon before moving onto home-video distribution through Lionsgate (NYSE: LGF).
But it was important to Higa that “Agents” be available first directly to his subscribers on the channel where they know they can find him, according to Strompolos. “There’s certainly benefits to launching other films on other platforms and mediums,” he said. “But we don’t want to leave the core fan base in the dust.”
“Agents’” debut is just a first window, to be followed by a modestly priced DVD release that will include new footage; there’s also plans for a sequel and more. Monetizing YouTube talent “upstream,” the parlance for the offline distribution possibilities where the potential revenues can dwarf what’s earned online, is such a nascent art that there’s no one path to take. But given how huge an audience Higa already has, his every move is worth following.