Founder Allen Debevoise tells how he began with Halo wonks in `05, now chases ad bucks with Hollywood's help
While Google and YouTube were closely guarding details of their Wednesday night presentation at the Beacon Theater — part of the new media's digital content "NewFronts" presentations for advertisers this week in Manhattan — Machinima was sure to be prominently featured.
Named for a mash-up of "machine" and "cinema," the series of 4,500 Machinima network partner channels on YouTube have over 100 million subscribers. In March, they brought YouTube 1.5 billion page views, the site says — and studio insiders say they have no reason to doubt it.
The target: what's been dubbed the Lost Boys — the 18-34 gamer-heavy onliners. While Hollywood has continued to court this hype-resistant demo — mostly unsuccessfully — with a series of movies based on popular videogames, it remains largely an untapped 800-pound gorilla, especially when it comes to ad dollars.
More than just a giant presence on YouTube, Machinima is its own massive website, where the Lost Boys go to watch video mash-ups; such fare as “Top 10 Star Wars Games”; features like the live-action “Bite Me” (pictured above), which offers clickable pop-ups that allow users to interact with the video; “Dragon Age Redemption,” a spooky medieval fantasy; a trailer vault billed as “laying the foundation to become the online archive of video game and movie history; and the breezily informative "Inside Gaming Daily."
This sort of crafty exploitation of free content has led many to compare Machinima to MTV in the early days. Co-founder and CEO Allen Debevoise doesn’t disagree: “MTV was born in the notion of a video format that related to music. In the same way, Machinima is a video format that relates to core gaming.”
By successfully embracing the Lost Boys, Machinima is exploiting a market Old Media generally has to approach in more scattershot ways — e.g., super-pricey Super Bowl ads and major buys on popular television shows that they compute, or guess, will fit a game or film’s key demo.
But it's also beginning to attract the more mainstream ad buyers. Since its acquisition in 2005 by Debevoise (pictured at right) and his brother Phillip, Machinima’s key source of revenue — the gaming industry — has tapered from 90 to 50 percent of the take as companies like Microsoft’s Bing, Motorola, Pizza Hut, Verizon and the soda makers have come aboard alongside. And, of course, movies like "Avengers," which has prominent ads for the already-available soundtrack on the site, spring-loaded for young buyers who want to click through and buy it.
When the Debevoise brothers first took over the site, they focused it on "Halo" gamers but soon began encouraging mostly amateur user-generated content — largely mash-ups of shooter games done by "Machinimators."
The site now boasts some 4,000 content providers, with a much wider range of material — and a far higher level of professionalism.
“There was an old model where people thought of UGC as a dog on a skateboard," Debevoise said. "Now we’re seeing the creative process, the talent development process, happen in public; [creators] are embracing their audiences, and we’re seeing a lot of emerging filmmakers. A lot of talent out there that is gonna be the next J.J. Abrams is evolving on this platform. “
And Debevoise would be happy to see lots of crossover action with the major studios to coalesce and create ad-hoc affinity audiences both platforms can share.
The tale of how director Kevin Tanchareon awakened Warner Bros. to its "Mortal Kombat" legacy is a Web 2.0 Cinderella story that will be hard to beat, he told TheWrap.
At the time, the "Mortal Kombat" brand was somewhat dormant, but “Kevin wanted to do something in the action category and loved the game, so he came up with an origin story and did a live-action short that he put up on YouTube," Debevoise said. "He pitched them this idea of doing a 90-minute film broken up into 10 episodes as a kind of season on Machinima.
"He then convinced the studio it would do huge numbers because of our audience, and now we’re told it’s the most successful web series of all time with 60 million views — and Kevin is now directing the franchise movie for the studio.”
Warner Bros.' Digital Distribution head of digital production Lance Sloane, who worked on on the Warner Premiere “Mortal Kombat” reboot (earlier the company had launched 2009's "Terminator Salvation: Machinima" series), welcomes a spirit found in online productions that he likens to the independent film days: "We can create, develop, produce and distribute these things faster than any other medium.”
But, he adds, "To have 60 million views and not really have the advertising to put against it is a little frustrating.”
Debevoise said that will change. “His pitch to the film studios and gaming companies is that his core audience is a surer and more lucrative bet than those reached by previous strategies.
"Certainly the top 20 or so movies of all time are in great part in the category of sci fi, horror, action, thrillers, irreverent comedy, all those genres," he said. "And a lot of our audience is the people who go to those movies obsessively, on opening weekend and more than once. That audience is also big spenders — 'Modern Warfare 3' was a retail product [around $40] and then the subscribers to X Box Live Gold are made up mostly of the core gamers. “
He’s sure his is a better way of finding the Lost Boys: “It’s a theme I really harp on with a lot of our advertisers — that content is better marketing than traditional hyped, trailer-oriented advertising. To have the 'Mortal Kombat' brand brought back all of a sudden was way more effective than just showing a bunch of footage from the game and trying to hype somebody into buying it."