Sawyer Hartman moved to Los Angeles to become an actor, and objectively speaking he has “the look.” You know the one I mean. He’s lantern-jawed, chiseled, and affable. Hartman is likable. It’s the reason his YouTube channel is filled with comments that read like some teenage love haiku:
“Sawyer is sexy
Oh my god, Sawyer is hot
I love you, Sawyer”
And while Hartman’s most popular video is unquestionably one in which he and YouTube pal Joey Graceffa take off their clothes for one reason or another, this young YouTuber is trying his damndest to be more than just eye candy. “If I had to pick just one career, it’d be as a director,” Hartman explains after I ask him if he’s given up acting to pursue filmmaking. I spring the question on Hartman simply because from the start, he can’t stop talking about his passion for film.
“Passion for film,” the eye-roll-inducing phrase that’s on the lips of every would-be star and screenwriter with a really great idea for a movie with robot cops or something. Yes, it’s cliched, but coming from Hartman, I just can’t shake the feeling that this is a creator with more than a big idea attached to a bigger dream. I wanted to be cynical, believe me when I say this. Handsome dude moves to Los Angeles and now wants to direct films while making brief cameos like some kind of Quentin Tarantino with abs? It’s enough to raise anyone’s hackles. But it’s around the middle of our interview that I start to turn the corner with Hartman.
It happens quickly: I ask Hartman whether or not he is concerned about the fact that his most popular videos are not the short films he has directed, but instead the vlog-style uploads where he takes his clothes off. That seems to be his wheelhouse; audiences love him. Why not stick with acting?
“Those videos are collaborations,” Hartman explains. “Say a collab has half a million views, probably only 300,000 of them are my unique audience and the other 200,000 are the cross-over from the other person in the video.” If you’re not catching what Hartman is saying, or more accurately doing, he is downplaying the success of his most popular videos. In the wild west that is YouTube, no one, ever, by any metric downplays their most popular videos. But here is Hartman telling me that he can’t take all of the credit for his top uploads. Sure he is proud of them, but they’re not 100% him. His short film though, now there’s something he can take pride in.
“I have videos like my 30-minute horror film ‘Strangers,’ which also now has over 400,000 views,” Hartman says. “I actually feel really blessed that my audience accepts the short films because there are beautiful, absolutely beautifully-done, artsy, award-worthy short films on YouTube that have less than 1,000 views.”
Stepping back and really understanding what Hartman is saying is pivotal here, so we’ll break it down like this: Hartman wants to be a director, but he is really good at being an actor. So he builds an audience using the resources available to him — his natural charm and his equally charming YouTube buddies. With his 800,000+ strong audience now in place (and growing), Hartman has the opportunity to give his actual filmmaking skills a trial by fire. In other words, now that Hartman has the audience it’s time to test out his directorial abilities. If he can’t get 800,000 adoring fans behind his short films then chances are that they aren’t very good. It’s a brutal gauntlet to run your art through, but luckily, Hartman’s art is passing with hundreds of thousand of views, which I guess is YouTube’s version of flying colors.
YouTube, however, isn’t necessarily perceived as a home for serious filmmakers. The site’s most-viewed video features a South Korean pop sensation riding an invisible horse. “Gangnam Style” is great, but “Grey Gardens” it’s not. Typically, if you are looking to branch into dedicated filmmaking, most creators drift towards an art-house platform like Vimeo, a place where beautiful short films won’t be drowned out by YouTube’s algorithms and parody rap songs. For Hartman though, at this point he could never abandon his audience to pursue the cinematic shores of Vimeo. “I love the audience that I have. You know, a lot of them are there for the short films and I never want to take that away from them,” he says.
For many filmmakers working on YouTube, there is also the problem of transition. How does one shift from the saturated YouTube market to the exceedingly more competitive and cutthroat Hollywood scene? Hartman sees it as less of a problem and more of a resource challenge. “A lot of the transition to mainstream media falls into the budget of what you can do with the time you have and the talent that is onboard,” Hartman explains. Naturally, this is the problem that most independent filmmakers face. Oftentimes grasp exceeds reach and the end product is far cry from what its creator initially envisioned. However, in the present, Hartman is making do with the resources he has. And at the risk of editorializing, he’s doing a damn good job.