Rage Against the Machinima

As the stakes get higher on YouTube, video stars are finding safety—and power—in numbers

The video “Thank you, I will miss you guys” is barely a minute long—just one shaky, handheld shot trained on the face of then-21-year-old Ben Vacas. Vacas, known online as Braindeadly, has brown eyes, a faux-hawk, and a British accent that makes his farewell to his 40,000 YouTube subscribers a little bit sadder, somehow.

“I went into a call with Machinima this evening, and they said that my contract is completely enforceable,” Vacas tells the camera. “I can’t get out of it. They said I am with them for the rest of my life—that I am with them forever.

“If I’m locked down to Machinima for the rest of my life, and I’ve got no freedom, then I don’t want to make videos anymore,” he says. The screen fades to black, then a written message appears: “If this is the last thing I say, please don’t make the same mistake as I did and always read before you sign something.”

Maker Studios, co-founded by LisaNova in 2009, hosts more than 1,000 YouTube channels with over 1 billion views.
Maker Studios, co-founded by LisaNova in 2009, hosts more than 1,000 YouTube channels with over 1 billion views.
Braindeadly, aka Ben Vacas, had 40,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel when he quit making videos.
Braindeadly, aka Ben Vacas, had 40,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel when he quit making videos.

Vacas gained prominence online as a top-ranked hunter in World of Warcraft, a video game he has played for more than seven years. He began making YouTube videos last year, mostly of him joking around with other players and talking about games.

It wasn’t long before Machinima, a multichannel YouTube network that specializes in gaming content, came calling. The network offered him a partnership: It would put ads on his videos, and he would get a cut of the revenue; in November 2011, Vacas signed on.

But the devil was in the details: After signing with Machinima, he learned the company would own the rights to any videos he posted online for the rest of his life—or, in the famously eerie formulation of contract law, “in perpetuity, throughout the universe, in all forms of media now known or hereafter devised.” And then there was the fact that Vacas’s contract with the network was open-ended. There was no expiration date. He probably should have taken that as a sign.

Over the last two years, YouTube has evolved from a chaotic showcase for amateur video into an increasingly cutthroat ecosystem where everyone—stars, networks, and advertisers—is competing for views, viewers, and view time. Big money is at stake. That’s because YouTube, with the backing of its parent company, Google, is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a strategy to compete with traditional television—and it’s betting on multichannel networks like Machinima to crack open the market. These networks offer young creatives a modest slice of the pie in return for the right to sell ads on their videos; the more channels a network brings under its umbrella, the more eyeballs it can promise to advertisers, and the richer it becomes.

But a recent string of high-profile disputes is prompting comparisons between YouTube networks and the exploitative Hollywood studios of the 1930s and ’40s: Both used the lure of fame and cash to convince naive talent to sign contracts that left them at a disadvantage.

Internet and intellectual-property lawyers say these disputes suggest a serious problem in the emerging industry. But while Machinima and it’s closest rival, Maker Studios—both based in L.A. and heavily backed by venture capitalists—have been accused of some of the worst practices, investors remain undeterred. In November, while Maker Studios was in the middle of a fight with its highest-profile star, Time Warner was raising $36 million in venture-capital funds on the network’s behalf. And in May, just weeks after Ben Vacas posted his emotional sayonara, Machinima closed a round of fundraising, led by Google, worth $35 million.

Among native YouTube companies, Machinima and Maker Studios have been savviest about their growth, earning a place in the market that rivals Time Warner and Sony-owned VEVO. But on the Web, the faintest tremor of unrest can turn into a riot in no time. Faced with a nascent revolt among the talent they’ve built their empires on, these massive networks claim not to be worried about their stability. But maybe they should be.

“I’d always wanted to be a filmmaker,” says Hugh Hancock, the generally acknowledged godfather of the art form “machinima.” Reached by phone at his home in Edinburgh, Scotland, Hancock recalls that “the issue, back then in 1996, before the digital video revolution, [was that] it was before 3-D animation was in any way affordable, so I’d always given it up as a pipe dream.”

Everything changed with the release of Quake in June 1996. The 28-level, first-person-shooter was one of the first games in which developers opened up the code to players—saying, in effect, ‘Create with this technology.’ Players could repurpose Quake’s characters and settings to script original stories, then render them in 3-D animation.

A small, devoted community developed around these “Quake movies.” When it expanded to other games like the Sims or World of Warcraft, the result was dubbed “machinima”—a portmanteau of “machine” and “cinema.”

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