ANAHEIM, Calif. – A long line of teenagers has formed inside a cavernous convention center.
They’re waiting to nab an autograph from Rebecca Black, the girl who achieved infamy with her nasally music video "Friday." Over in the lobby, folks are sticking out their smartphones to capture a photo of Yogi the Welsh corgi, a dog who accidentally set a kitchen on fire, while others have surrounded a seated Paul "Bear" Vasquez, the man who unabashedly gushed over the sight of a double rainbow.
It’s the third annual VidCon, a gathering of online video creators, viral video stars and the people who click "like" on them. The circus atmosphere is the ultimate physical manifestation of activities usually reserved for the privacy of one’s lap or hand.
The event outgrew its previous digs at a Los Angeles hotel and has moved south to a convention center in the land of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, but the astronomical audiences these online celebrities are attracting and the real money they’re making are far from fantasy.
The event’s organizers, John and Hank Green, known online as the Vlogbrothers, launched VidCon three years ago to unite video bloggers in space and time. This year’s VidCon, which kicked off Thursday and continues through Sunday, is sponsored by the likes of Disney Interactive Media Group, the online video studios Maker and Revision3, and, of course, Google Inc.-owned YouTube.
"It’s a great opportunity to meet people who have the same passion as you, even if they make videos that are completely different than yours," says 19-year-old Justin Stuart of Colorado Springs, Co. Stuart’s simplistically silly video of himself and friends falling down in public places has amassed more than 1.7 million views on his "JStuStudios" channel on YouTube.
VidCon organizers say attendance at this year’s sold-out event at the Anaheim Convention Center is more than double last year’s turnout, attracting 6,000 mostly teenaged attendees, many of whom were accompanied by their parents, compared to last year’s 3,600 con-goers.
The expanded offerings at this weekend’s VidCon include more panels, an open-mic room for budding musicians and an expo floor with exhibitors showing off the latest in gadgets and software as attendees excitedly swap Twitter names, Facebook pages and YouTube channels.
On Friday morning, thousands of so-called YouTubers filled the convention center’s arena to watch online video celebs like Nick Pitera, Rootberry and Henry Reich sing mash-ups, swallow swords and animate physics lessons before breaking off to attend panels with titles like "Don’t Forget About Audio," "YouTube and the 2012 Election," and "So You Want to be a Vlogger? Now What?"
While the mood at VidCon is mostly jovial, the more serious minded in attendance recognize a change is afoot for their beloved realm. The lines are blurring between what’s considered online video, and the entertainment industry is angling for more influence over the medium than ever before.
"We’re seeing a trend of Hollywood coming in," said Benny Fine, who with his brother produces a series called "Kids React" that features children dishing on current events. "It’s time to get ready to show that we have the audience and the abilities they do because, even if we have hundreds of millions of views, we’re still going to be looked at differently."
Fine says there are three basic ways YouTubers can make money nowadays: through traditional advertising like pop-up ads and commercials, merchandising content with stuff like apparel and music, and forging sponsorships similar to the bacon-themed deals that the meat-loving cooking show "Epic Meal Time" has struck with several companies.
Shishir Mehrotra, YouTube’s vice president of product management, announced Thursday at VidCon that the company is rolling out a new platform to directly connect its "partners," a group of uploaders with whom YouTube shares advertising revenue, with marketers looking to glom onto their online audience. The company says it pays millions to its "partners" each year, and thousands of YouTube channels generate six figures a year.
With all that money to be made, many VidCon attendees just want to know how they can procure a piece of it when the marketplace is becoming more crowded than the line to meet the girl who sang "Friday." Ze Frank, an artist regarded as the grandfather of vlogging, told the crowd that the answer lies within.
"Think about designing for one – just you," said Frank. "Ultimately, if you do become successful and have lots of followers and fame, you’ll still be left with the challenge, `How do I make things that I want to make?’"