Freddie Wong has won over millions of fans YouTube with his campy, video-game-inspired short films. But he isn't interested in winning over Hollywood.
Since launching two YouTube channels, FreddieW and FreddieW2, in March 2010, Wong and his partner, Brandon Laatsch, have uploaded 121 effects-heavy videos on a near-weekly basis. They've amassed more than 3.5 million subscribers between their two channels. They've also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, through fan donations, to make the clips.
Their YouTube following has attracted Hollywood's attention: Wong and Laatsch have recently been approached by movie studios including the Weinstein Co., as well as producers. But no deals have come to fruition. Wong said signing a contract isn't his top priority. Directing YouTube movies is.
"Making a feature film or making a TV show [as] a definition of success, that's out of date," Wong told TheWrap. "We're looking at where online content is going, where technology is going — that's an exciting new frontier. We have this chance to carve out what the online world and digital-distribution world could look like, and that's infinitely more interesting."
For most of their videos — some of which were shot in Wong's backyard — Wong directs and stars, and Laatsch handles the camerawork. The video production costs vary, with some costing a few thousand dollars to make. Another one, inspired by the video game "Modern Warfare," cost about $200 and has wracked up more than 4.7 million views.
They recently shot their first TV commercial, a spot for the Electronic Arts video game "Battlefield 3," after making online commercials for McDonald's and Toshiba. In the new ad, they load up a forklift with explosives, Wong drives it toward a building, and then he bails out before it detonates.
"We turned it around in 10 days," Wong said. "[EA] left it open to us to come up with concepts. They said, 'Mess around and have fun with your friends.' "
Wong and Laatsch's new ad debuted on TV over the weekend. But that's not changing their career trajectory, at least at the moment: For them, it's still all about YouTube.
(Story continues after the Wong and Laatsch's ad below.)
Among their most popular clips on the video-sharing site are "Future First Person Shooter," which depicts a live-action version of a first-person-shooter video game and has accrued nearly 22 million views; "Medal of Honor Cat," which also plays off a popular video game and has almost 13 million views; and "Gamer Commute," which has more than 10 million views.
Only five other YouTube channels have more subscribers than FreddieW, and only two other directors on YouTube have more subscribers.
Next up is a nine-part, 90-minute YouTube movie called "Video Game High School," set for release early next year. The movie, which was shot from the beginning of November through Thanksgiving, is set in a tongue-in-cheek future where professional video-game playing is the only sport in the world.
"It's a little like 'Harry Potter,' but if Hogwarts was a pro-gaming instructional academy instead," Wong said.
Also read: YouTube Redesign Emphasizes Content Channels
Wong and Laatsch are funding the live-action movie, which is due for release in March, through a Kickstarter campaign that has raised $270,000.
"We're in a place where we go direct to our viewers" for support, Wong said. "Because of that, we have full-on creative control for everything we do. There's no traditional oversights."
Wong and Laatsch went to college together at the USC's School of Cinema-Television. From there, they did digital-effects work on a freelance basis.
"Our sense the whole time was, 'Man, these revisions are making it worse.' "
Wong and Laatsch enjoy financial freedom too. Thanks to a YouTube partnership deal that includes an advertising-revenue split, Wong and Laatsch are able to support themselves financially off their YouTube videos alone. (Wong said that, due to a non-disclosure agreement, he couldn't specify the terms of the partnership. He did, however, say the length of the contract is not specified, and that it can be terminated at any time.)
"They told me you can't make short films for a living," Wong said of his experience in film school.
But Wong and Laatsch have enough money left over to pay for representation from The Collective, a management and production company that promotes a direct relationship between artists and their fans through various media platforms. Wong also runs his own Los Angeles-based media-production company, Overcrank Media, which specializes in film and online video content.
Wong said he and Laatsch aren't bucking Hollywood altogether. They're still entertaining feature-film and TV offers from studios and producers.
"But it's a matter of finding a project that takes advantage of the audience we've been building," Wong said. "We really like being able to directly communicate with our audience."
In addition to future YouTube videos, Wong and Laatsch are also prepping RocketJump.com, a portal Web site where their fan community will be able to view their long-form content and have access to bonuses such as audio commentary. RocketJump.com's soft launch is planned for early 2012.
If they were to move from YouTube to the big screen, it wouldn't be without precedent. Sam Raimi reportedly offered Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez a $30 million contract to convert his short YouTube film "Ataque de Panico!" into a feature film. And Spanish director Jesús Orellana has been approached by top talent agencies including CAA and WME, as well as Hollywood producers, to develop his animated short film "Rosa" — which he released for free on Vimeo — into a live-action feature film.
But wherever the future holds for Wong and Laatsch, Wong said that, for the time being, they are content with creating content for YouTube.
"A lot of people look at online as their means to an end," Wong said. "For us, online is an end in and of itself."