Last Friday, CBS’ “The Late Late Show with James Corden” packed up its set and its band and took it twelve and a half miles down the freeway to YouTube Space LA in Playa Vista to record a special edition of the talker airing tonight. The stated purpose is to celebrate a decade of YouTube, with a guest lineup featuring some of the platform’s top stars, including Tyler Oakley, Jenna Marbles, Kandee Johnson, The Slow Mo Guys and the creators of “Epic Rap Battles of History.” But the telecast will effectively serve as the national TV coming out party for the facility where, as YouTube puts it, creators come to “learn, connect and create.”
“The Late Late Show” averages 1.37 million viewers nightly. That’s a far cry from the 25 people who showed up for YouTube Space LA’s first Thursday night happy hour gathering in early 2013.
“We started by saying, ‘We know creators want this facility and we know that they need these resources,’” YouTube Space LA chief Liam Collins told VideoInk. “But one key learning is if you build it, they will not [necessarily] come. This is very much a start-up, very much trialing and pivoting.”
Today, YouTube Space LA regularly gets 900-plus RSVPs to its monthly happy hours and capacity crowds for its other events, ranging from screenings and book signings to themed parties (Halloween, Western) and live streaming cast Q&As for Universal’s “Straight Outta Compton” and Fox 2000’s “Paper Towns.” During less than three years of operation, it’s hosted 5700 video shoots for everyone from small-time creators such as Professor Puppet to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recently made a series of promotional videos for Paramount’s “Terminator Genisys” there with a collection of YouTube stars.
“First, we figured out how to run this place and keep the lights on every day,” Collins said. “Then we worked very hard on increasing awareness and starting to develop a personality and bringing that community of creators together. And you can’t really start to work on great content until you have that community here all the time.”
What’s a YouTube Space?
Housed in a former Hughes Aircraft helicopter factory, the $25 million, 41,000 square foot facility offers seven sound-stages with state-of-the art lighting and Red cameras, editing bays, a screening room and in-house professional production support free to YouTubers with more than 10,000 subscribers, along with classes to help creators from across the spectrum improve their skills and grow their channels. It’s built for parties as much as it is for production, with Silicon Valley retro-futuristic design touches, a 36-screen monitor wall in the lobby and a windowed front with a section that opens up to the outside patio for events.
It’s an enticing package, but many people didn’t know what to make of it at first. It’s hard to quantify the ROI generated by YouTube Space LA on a spreadsheet. The idea is that it will encourage and enable people to make better content, which in turn will inspire others to make better content, resulting in a snowball effect that elevates the platform and its creators, both creatively and economically. It does this not just by offering access to equipment, but by nurturing a creative community that cross-pollinates and cross-promotes.
Fuzzy long-range strategies such as this tend not to play well in a show business company town that writes off a movie as a failure if it underperforms at the box office on opening night and has few mechanisms for talent development outside of a handful of fellowship programs.
When Collins would try to explain the concept to people in Hollywood, “there definitely was a ‘I think I know what you’re doing, but I’m not sure’ [attitude]” he said. “What’s much more effective, frankly, still, is having people show up and walk into the building. They say, ‘Ah, okay.’”
Studios can seem eerily quiet even on their busiest days, but YouTube Space LA is a buzzy hive of perpetual motion reminiscent of backlot scenes from Hollywood’s Golden Age, with equipment constantly rolling in and out past costumed actors, crew members, recognizable YouTube personalities and the occasional dance troupe rehearsing a production number.
In the early days, however, it was hard to get people to make the trek down the 405 freeway to Playa Vista, just north of LAX. When ground was broken on the Space, it had few neighbors apart from EA Games and the ad agency 72 and Sunny. But today it’s the hub of a neighborhood that has offices for companies ranging from Facebook and multi-channel network Fullscreen to Tom’s Shoes and TMZ.
“When we first opened, people were like, ‘I’m never going to Playa Vista,’” said New Form Digital chief creative officer Kathleen Grace, who was YouTube Space LA’s head of creative development until April 2014. “Now, I hear people say, ‘I’m moving closer to Playa Vista.’ For both Hollywood people and the YouTube talent, it’s no longer considered so far away.”
Collins and Grace came to YouTube in March 2011 as part of its acquisition of Next New Networks, an MCN co-founded by Fred Seibert (of animation house Frederator Studios) that was home to such channels as Barely Political and Indy Mogul. Part of the plan was to use the Next New executive team — which also included current YouTube execs Timothy Shey, head of scripted for YouTube Originals, and Lance Podell, director/global head of YouTube Spaces — to spearhead its audience development efforts.
“They didn’t buy us thinking, ‘These guys are going to build these physical spaces,’” said Grace. “Liam and I kind of came up with the idea literally two days after acquisition.”
YouTube wanted to get closer to its biggest creators, find out what made them successful and share that with the community at large. Collins and Grace proposed it create a gathering place in the spirit of the “ghetto green screen studio” Next New Networks had established in its New York offices for its owned-and-operated channels.
“We found that talent that had no relationship us was just starting to hang out in the studios, and they became the center of gravity,” recalled Collins, who was chief operating officer at Next New. “[A creator] keeps showing up here every day because her friends are here. Can she use the stage and the camera? Sure, why not? We want her to develop some loyalty with us because the next show we do, we might ask her to make that show for us. That caused our family to get bigger, and we ended up having these partnerships with pre-existing channels where we advised them on audience development and sales and being entrepreneurs themselves.”
When construction began on YouTube Space LA, the building was little more than an empty box, but it wasn’t a blank canvas. Due to its status as a historic site, there were restrictions on what could be done. For instance, Collins wasn’t allowed to put windows on the north side of the building, and “I wanted a bigger YouTube sign, but I wasn’t allowed to make it,” he said. However, he was able to install a fire pole running from the second floor balcony to the lobby.
Working with New York architectural firm HLW International, they created a large open lobby space with modular components that can be switched in and out, depending on the event. A stage can be placed over the reception desk beneath the LED screens or on the other side of the room below a windowed box that can be used as a stage for dancers, as it was at its 2014 Halloween party, or covered with a movie screen.
It was also designed so that every inch of it inside and out provides shootable looks, an attribute Freddie Wong made ample use of on his hit online series “Video Game High School.”
But the infinite possibilities by offered by YouTube Space LA — from its myriad of courses to the blank slate of its seven soundstages — proved to be too much for some.
“We started by just saying, ‘We built this awesome facility. It’s for you. Go. And, by the way, here’s the 20 things you can do, here’s how you do them,’” Collins said. “And for many creators, that was paralyzing. So then we started to talk about creative constraint and how we needed to create a box within which creators could play and challenge themselves.”
The constraints came in the form of ready-made sets — including last fall’s horror-themed sets created in partnership with director Guillermo del Toro and the recent Stan Lee World of Superheroes sets — as well as a more coherently-structured curriculum featuring four learning paths that incentivizes creators to take a series of workshops instead of just one or two.
Back when YouTube Space LA was preparing to open its doors in late 2012, Collins said he was hoping for an artistic cross-pollination similar to what occurred in the 1970s at CBGB, the dingy club that served as ground zero for the New York City punk scene, where bands such as The Ramones, The Talking Heads, the Patti Smith Group and Blondie got their starts.
That wish played out in a literal fashion two and a half years later on a set recreating CBGB’s interior built on Stage 3. During a book release party for a novel based on the YouTube series “The Haunting Sunshine Girl” in April, guests discovered that the instruments and the P.A. were live, and an impromptu jam session broke out. Then a band made up of YouTube Space LA employees took to the stage, running through a set that included “Helter Skelter” and “Space Oddity.”
“Every step of the way, I was like, ‘What?! Is this really happening right now?’” said singer/guitarist Ali Spagnola, who performed with Ally Hills, the drummer for her band, and several musicians she had just met. “But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, because the Space is so cool and everyone is very open and all about creating good work.”
Vance Joy performing at the “Paper Towns” event on July 17.
Take My Idea, Please
Since it first opened its doors in late 2012, YouTube Space LA has played host to more than 400 events, 100K visitors and 6700 workshops. It’s also spawned sister YouTube Spaces in New York, London, Tokyo, Berlin and Sao Paulo, Brazil, and two more are scheduled to open in Mumbai and Toronto.
More significant are the imitators it’s spawned, such as Michelle Phan’s Ipsy Open Studios and Collab Studios, which also offer free, no-strings-attached production facilities to members of their respective networks.
According to Collins, it’s not just flattering, it’s further proof that YouTube Space LA’s open source concept is working to “catalyze” the community, just as they planned.
“Our goal is that other people borrow the concept,” Collins said. “We don’t really want to be in the studio business and build a thousand studios. Like Google and YouTube often do, we want to set an example and let people run with it.”