The streaming video space is often characterized as the Wild Wild West, and it has been particularly wild for digital creators, a new breed of celebrity cultivated on a new breed of platforms that, for a long time, were little understood and little respected by old school show business types.
The week prior to VidCon 2016 in June, the event’s co-founder Hank Green rode into the fray with the Internet Creators Guild, an organization he established “to connect, represent, and support people who make stuff online,” namely creators on social video platforms such as YouTube.
“It’s been very long overdue,” said ICG president Anna Akana, an actress, filmmaker and YouTuber who stars in the new Go90 series “Miss 2059,” produced by New Form Digital. “Do you remember when MCNs were making teens sign contracts in perpetuity?… There was a lot of shady stuff happening.”
Back in the late 2000s and early 2010s, there were few legitimate agents, managers or lawyers interested in handling online personalities, so, too often, no one was there to warn them of the in-perpetuity clauses, the conflicts of interest, the huge cuts demanded (as much as 80% on brand deals) and other questionable aspects of working with MCNs at the time.
Today, the contracts tend to be better, but they’re not necessarily up to traditional studio standards.
“The MCNs haven’t completely normalized their in-house [operations],” said attorney Jody Simon (pictured, left), whose clients include digital stars Meghan Camarena (Strawburry17) and Grace Randolph (Beyond the Trailer), MCN We Are The Mighty and VOD service Crunchyroll. “The people who do the deals aren’t always lawyers, so there’s still a certain kind of shagginess to what goes on there.”
But is there really is a need for ICG in 2016?
“A lot of the free-for-all Wild Wild West of it all that was happening in 2008, 2009, 2010 and even going into 2012 has been less of issue in recent years,” said Alec Shankman, VP and head of alternative programming, licensing and digital media at Abrams Artists Agency in Los
Angeles, whose roster of influencers includes Jack Baran (ThatsSoJack), Amy Pham and Mr.Kate. “A lot more formality has been put into the process, and agents know how to structure deals and publicists know how to control press. So what [the ICG is] looking to do is still likely to be helpful for a certain percentage of talent, but those who have proper teams in place, they probably don’t have a lot of these problems.”
Less than a month after its launch, the ICG has 350 members, and the potential for growth is large. As Green noted in a post on Medium announcing the ICG, more than 37,000 YouTube channels now get more than a million views a month, which is tens of thousands more than could ever hope to score representation of Simon or Shankman’s caliber. .
But the ICG won’t be representing creators like a classic talent rep, and negotiating deals.
“The ICG will be a voice that can act as a bridge to platforms and advise platforms on how to best serve creators,” said Laura Chernikoff, executive director of the ICG and guest manager at VidCon. “For example, if a new feature was released on a major platform, we can help evaluate it independently and explain what it will mean for creators. We’ll also help the press talk intelligently about online video when major developments occur, and will feature diverse voices within our written materials.”
The ICG also plans to share and explain sample contracts for sponsors, managers, MCNs, merchandise and agencies and case studies of successful strategies for community building and monetization.
What the creators see in these examples might be just a rough draft of what they need have in the final deal.
According to attorney Danny Miller (pictured, left), whose clients include VSauce, Joey Graceffa, Wong Fu Productions and Kian Lawley and JC Caylen, the contracts he sees these days still need finessing.
“As far as progress goes, while the ‘default’ or boilerplate deals that come across my desk are never in the creator’s favor, companies are certainly less shocked, and a few are actually quite agreeable, to my counter-offers and proposals these days,” said Miller. “The notable exception to this has been traditional film/TV studios and networks entering the space via their OTT’s and expecting creators to be happy with a traditional network relationship (i.e., they own and control everything) but on a digital budget.”
The ICG’s sample contracts have yet to be posted, but the guild has launched a weekly “Creator Talks” podcast hosted by Green, featuring conversations with digital influencers about their backgrounds and business and creative processes, as well as a Slack discussion group for members.
“I personally want to contribute a lot about how I’ve got brand deals,” said Akana. In the past, she’s negotiated many of her own brand deals, and “I personally never would’ve known that I was under-charging until another YouTuber told me, ‘Oh, no. Your rates should be triple that.’”
YouTube creator Yulin Kuang said she loves the idea of young content creators getting an assist from more established people in the industry, but she finds the ICG’s $60/year membership dues troubling.
“I always get nervous when young content creators are asked to contribute money for that, and I just want to make sure that they’re getting their money’s worth,” said Kuang, who wrote and directed the New Form Digital-produced CW Seed series “I Ship It” “I think that in entertainment fields, especially, it’s easy to take advantage of people.”
Akana pointed out that the $60/year works out to $5/month, “which is less than any other platform subscription service.”
The $60 a year the ICG charges is certainly a lot cheaper than the fees film, TV and radio performers shell out to SAG-AFTRA — which requires members to pay a $3000 initiation fee and base annual dues of $201.96, as well as 1.575% of all individual earnings under the union’s contracts between $1 and $500,000. But SAG-AFTRA — like the Directors Guild America, the Writers Guild of America and the Art Directors Guild — is a full-fledged labor union that serves as a collective bargaining unit and provides health care and retirement plans.
The ICG doesn’t rule out adopting similar benefits at some point in the future, but it pledges that it will never enter into contracts with producers that require employees to be ICG members, a la traditional labor unions.
In the meantime, the ICG provides members discounts for online video management plug-ins TubeBuddy and VidIQ, as well as a $20 discount on future VidCon Creator Track tickets — perks similar to those offered by fan clubs.
The ICG is a non-profit, 501©(6) organization (membership association), so Green and others involved in its operation can’t directly profit from it beyond what they might receive as board members and advisors. (An ICG rep says they receive no compensation.) But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to indirectly support a for-profit enterprise, namely VidCon.
“The reality is this is a marketing mechanism for their events,” said an industry exec who asked not to be identified. “If you have the trust of all of these aspiring influencers and they tell you have to be where VidCon tells you to be because they control the ICG, you will be. So it’s a great idea, frankly, for the purposes of VidCon.”