While Hollywood stars line up for new projects with online portals from YouTube to Hulu, the stars of the digital age finally have an agency to represent them: Big Frame.
Founded in 2010 by Sarah Penna, Big Frame is one of the first YouTube-centric management companies anywhere. Its channel, Bammo, will take center stage during the Google-owned portals' presentation on Wednesday at the equivalent of TV’s upfronts for online video, called the NewFronts.
The company finds and represents the most popular YouTube personalities, talent that goes by names like MysteryGuitarMan, DeStorm and DudePerfect. The agency helps connect them with big global brands that sponsor their content.
Big Frame's current collection of YouTube stars draws more than 8 million viewers a month. Among the Internet giants, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL have all made ambitious gambits into original video, but YouTube remains the undisputed king, with 146 million viewers in March alone.
While Big Frame calls itself a media company, what makes it stand out from the big boys in the increasingly crowded online video-production business is its management element.
The biggest flaws with YouTube’s content initiatives right now are “discovery and promotion,” Penna told TheWrap. “It’s not easy right now to be discovered if you are just starting out and not plugged into some form of community.”
Since the October launch of YouTube’s 100-channel original-content initiative, which saw the site partner with the likes of Hearst and Jay-Z, an already big business grew even bigger. Capitalizing on that, Big Frame has orchestrated major brand partnerships between its talent and companies like Home Depot and Pepsi.
Brands can get involved in YouTube in a number of ways. There’s the traditional sponsorship, where a certain video or star is sponsored by a particular brand.
But Big Frame also takes other approaches. For example, DeStorm, a rapper, made a music video that takes place almost entirely in a Home Depot.
Or, a couple of years ago GMC approached DudePerfect, a group of Texans who film trick shots, about a partnership. They ended up giving the guys a plane to shoot out of and using the video in an ad campaign.
“Artists have to be brand-friendly,” Penna told TheWrap. “It’s how we keep the lights on. “
Big Frame started off being completely financed through brand deals, but it is now closing in on an investment round after launching its YouTube Channel, Bammo, in March. Bammo specializes in special effects-focused work that takes people behind the scenes of the creative process with stars like MysteryGuitarMan and DudePerfect.
DudePerfect, in fact, is an example of a YouTube star Big Frame signed and cultivated, even after they had appeared on “Good Morning America” with their first viral video back in 2009.
“Once you’ve been in it for a little while, you realize how much you don’t know,” Jeff Toney, father of DudePerfect’s Tyler Toney, told TheWrap. “The Big Frame organization has experience in a lot of areas and can help us increase ad revenue for our videos and make sure we are better positioned to get the right kinds of business opportunities. They can help further the DudePerfect brand.”
Big Frame also oversees marketing and production for Bammo and Penna approves the new videos and makes sure they are both brand-friendly and of adequate quality. That differs from a company like Maker studios, which is more like a full-fledged studio.
In talking with Penna in Big Frame’s West Hollywood office, it’s quite clear she saw where the world was going before it went there. Just one thing: It took her a few years to realize how ahead of everyone she was.
She worked at Current TV in its pre-Al Gore infancy, when it was still dedicated to user-generated content. That was a great idea until YouTube made Current and all broadcast attempts at user-generated content irrelevant.
Still, while at Current she made a series of documentaries, giving her experience on the production side. She also was responsible for scouring for talent, hooking her up with a network of eager and skilled content producers.
“In doing that I uncovered this whole world that was emerging, but I didn’t think much of it,” she said. “I was interested and started watching [YouTube personalities] Stevie Ryan and Phillip DeFranco. I was really impressed with this stuff being made, but in my mind distribution had to be on TV. I still had that mentality of, ‘How can we bring it to TV?’
“Then I realized they have better distribution and are getting millions of views.”
Still, after Current, Penna only went halfway, working at a company that created narrative web series. It wasn't a success, but in the process she continued to notice YouTube talent and suggested they use them in the shows.
Eventually DeFranco hired her and she “de facto became his manager.”
Through that work, she connected with brands who wanted her to pitch them more stars, while the “YouTubers” wanted her to hook them up with brands.
So how did that turn into Big Frame?
“I saw something special and wanted to make sure brands came into the space and that brand integrations were done properly,” Penna said. “It’s a new space and a new way of getting a message out there for a brand. There are ways of doing that that are very effective.”
So she decided to start a company that manages YouTube talent, called it Cloud Media, and gave herself six months to see if she could make it work.
“People said, ‘What? How do you make money on YouTube? How do you make money from the people who make money on YouTube?’”
What these people didn't know about was branding, and the commission a management company could take for its services. Nor did they know YouTube was planning its major channels initiative, which Penna heard about not too long after starting the company.
Still, after she launched Cloud Media, Penna realized she had a problem -- just being a management company was insufficient. It either had to be a massive management company or it had to get into the other facets of the YouTube business.
So she decided to turn it into a media company, overseeing every aspect of a YouTube star’s career and creating YouTube channels.
To help do that, she brought in Steve Raymond, whose career had taken him through the worlds of big media (Comcast and Yahoo) and start-ups (Relegence and Musicmatch).
“It was a perfect aligning of the stars. I was looking for somebody to come in and figure out the investor side of things and ad sales,” Penna said.
One individual from a rival company, who asked not to be identified, said Big Frame had a way to go in defining itself.
“I don’t know what they are providing,” he told TheWrap. “It feels more like a sales and marketing company or an ad network. 'We’re a media company.' But that just means you have these disparate businesses and you have to bring them together.”
When TheWrap spoke with Raymond over lunch, he made pretty clear he thought YouTube was the future of TV. Hollywood is slow and bloated, he said. On YouTube, you get instantaneous feedback and can alter your programming to satisfy the audience.
And while some question whether these YouTube stars can cross, Penna and Raymond say that isn’t even a focus right now. They’ve been approached by networks and resisted.
Given the meteoric rise of online video, having to figure out your identity -- with revenue already coming in -- falls under growing pains.