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“This is a very hard decision and I’ve been thinking about it,” he says, gazing earnestly at the camera, head cocked, a shock of shiny black hair falling over his face. “But the only thing that I can do—the only thing that feels right, right now—is to leave Machinima.”
The news that Athene, a bona fide YouTube celebrity with 589,798 subscribers and 382 million video views, was leaving Machinima reverberated across YouTube. Reached by e-mail, a representative for Boumaaza said, “We’ve regularly talked to several people from Machinima about complaints we have been hearing from partners about how they felt intimidated by their business and contract practices.
“Every time that we brought this to Machinima’s attention . . . we were assured that they had started taking a different approach. But when the situation with Braindeadly occurred, it was clear to us that nothing had changed.”
At the time, Athene had made no decision regarding which network he would join, the spokesman added. The star would be open to joining a network that “wants to make YouTube a better place for content producers or wants to give gamers more freedom and resources.”
Shortly after the controversy blew up on Reddit, Vacas said in a Skype interview, “It was really amazing to see how many people took the time to support me. It just shows how much the community can do when they all group together and help others out.”
He added that Machinima had since offered him another deal, but with terms no better than his previous contract’s. He said he would be working with a lawyer to settle the matter.
Taken together, these fights constitute a bigger issue, one not unlike those that developed when the film industry was first finding its feet.
Like Maker Studios and Machinima, the film studios of the ’30s and ’40s didn’t just produce content, they distributed it, says Tino Balio, professor emeritus of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an expert on the history of the American film industry.
At the time, studios produced shorter, lower-budget films on a tight schedule because theatrical runs were only about a week. Studios churned out one major movie every week, plus a few B films, to meet demand.
“The studios were run on a factory basis. They had to have total control of their talent in order to assign them to projects, in order to make all of these films to keep their theaters filled,” Balio says. “They could not negotiate with talent each time they decided to make a motion picture.”
They met this challenge by adopting the “option” contract. A new star might be signed for a fixed term (typically seven years); each year, the studio had the option to renew the contract—but the actors couldn’t break it during its duration.
“It was bondage,” Balio says. “It changed over time, but basically, when a performer signed an option contract, he or she was bound to the studio because no other major studio would hire that performer if he or she broke their option contract.” Beginning in the 1950s, though, the industry underwent a transformation. It moved away from producing as many films as possible and toward producing the best films possible.
That change was the result of two things, Balio says: the rise of television and the Paramount antitrust suit. The judgment in that case declared that studios could no longer own the theaters that showed their movies. The result was, in some ways, a transformation similar to the one YouTube is hoping for: a transition from short, low-budget films toward longer, professionally made content that's worth a premium.
That was the idea behind YouTube’s $100 million investment in October 2011 in 100 original-content channels, which included channels produced by Maker and Machinima. In November 2012, YouTube doubled down on that bet, reinvesting in the top-performing 30 to 40 percent of those channels. In November, YouTube also opened a production facility in Howard Hughes’ former airplane hangar in Playa Vista, California, and made it available to “partners” who want to up their game. YouTube’s redesign, unveiled in December, also was a step in that direction. It is more about channels, less about individual videos, the hope being that YouTube will become a destination with high production values rather than a dumping ground for videos of wildly varying quality.
David Lisi is an attorney with DLA Piper, a law firm in Silicon Valley. He has worked on both sides of these contract disputes—on behalf of both talent (YouTube stars) and distributors (their networks).
Part of the problem, he says, is that YouTube networks initially adopted the language and practices of the entertainment industry, but technology is evolving quickly, and the law is struggling to keep up with it.
In the past, the talent needed Hollywood studios or record labels or book publishers in order to get their work distributed. Today, Lisi says, a lot of video creators are asking, “What do these guys do for me?”