Buffer Festival 2015: YouTube new media all grown up

Sunday, November 1, 2015 - 5:52pm

Last weekend, the third annual Buffer Festival welcomed YouTube filmmakers from across to globe to Toronto. The familiar videos we usually watch on our personal mobile devices and laptops streamed in front of live audiences in the extravagant theaters of Toronto’s historic entertainment district. And the familiar YouTubers we connected with through a screen graced a red carpet before us, discussing their work with us personally.

Less chaotic than the fan-crazed Playlist Live, less uptight than the business venture VidCon has become, the humble Canadian Buffer Fest emphasizes not the lucrative business behind YouTube, but the structured, scripted, high-quality content emerging on the platform. Spread over three days, videos were screened in categories: short films, comedy sketches, travel and adventure, gaming and animation, among others.

“YouTube is moving toward a direction of professionalism,” said Corrado Coia of ApprenticeA Productions, one of the four co-founders of Buffer. “Some of these YouTubers have feature-length films in episodic format, and they do actually rival Hollywood quality. So they need to get the proper treatment — get them in a nice theater.”

For instance, Sawyer HartmanP.J. Ligouri (KickThePJ), Charlie McDonnell (charlieissocoollike) and Bertie Gilbert each started as “vloggers” – or video bloggers, who simply documented their mundane lives on webcams or camera phones. However, Hartman recently released “The Parallax Theory,” a feature-length film available through Vimeo on Demand; P.J. has created “Oscar’s Hotel,” a 10-part series also on Vimeo, which stars other big-name YouTubers; McDonnell has taken time off from vlogging to experiment with short films; and Gilbert, at only age 18, has a feature currently in the works.

Coia noted how Buffer’s primary goal is to present YouTube in a more positive, respectful light — more than just a venue for pranks and cats on skateboards. Each year after Buffer, after seeing the beautiful quality content their fellow YouTubers are capable of, both small and big-name creators leave with the same motivation to improve themselves.

Events like Buffer also encourage creators to experiment beyond new media — to work with podcasts, long-form scripted film, TV pilots — to mix other mediums with YouTube.

Adrianna DiLonardo and Sarah Rotella of the Gay Women Channel are the writer and director, respectively, of “Almost Adults,” a coming-of-age LGBTQ feature film that was funded on Kickstarter.

“(YouTubers are) using new media and their fan base to launch them into what they want to be doing outside of new media.” Rotella said. “Everyone is making their own content, but all of these YouTubers are getting books and doing movies, too.”

The effect of their film has had a trickle-down effect. Firstly, they have integrated their existing YouTube fan base into viewership for their film. Secondly, their loyal subscribers have become devoted to the movie’s actors, who have their own up-and-coming channels. Winny Clarke, a budding actress who plays Elliot in “Almost Adults,” just launched her own channel in October and plans to produce weekly comedy sketches.

“The traffic that the Gay Women Channel has is amazing, so every time I do something with them, it just sends traffic my way, as well,” Clark said.

The best part though, as DiLondardo noted, is that “it’s nice being your own boss.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Meghan Tonjes, who also appreciates how YouTube allows to be her own creative director.

“(YouTube) turned into a job where the underdog gets to be the cool kid, and you get to do anything you want, whenever you want, however you want,” she said.

Her third time at Buffer, Tonjes continues to make feminist life-advice videos about love, sex and relationships. She also has a podcast called “Adventures in Roommating” — what she sees as using a variety of media to express herself.

Similarly, Louis Cole, who has gained a following of over 1.6 million subscribers with his travel videos, mentioned how he’s ready to experiment beyond vlogging. Next year, he’s scheduled to circumnavigate the world in a plane with fellow YouTuber, JP.

“I’d love to explore partnering with someone and creating long-form content, like a documentary, would be fun,” he said.

Cole predicts the future of new media will look quite different.

“I think everything will overlap, but there’ll be specific content on different platforms,” Cole said. “So there’s still gonna be the very homemade relatable content on YouTube. There’ll also be the high-end content other sites put out like with their subscription service. I don’t think that’s gonna replace the homemade content.”

However, Cole’s sentiment about homemade content may be challenged by the very platform that encourages him to experiment. On Oct. 21, just two days prior to Buffer Fest, YouTube Chief Business Officer, Robert Kyncl, announced “YouTube Red” — a $9.99 monthly subscription service that that allows for ad-free, offline streaming.

Red will also feature exclusive original content from the most popular YouTubers. Felix Kjellberg (PewDiePie) has already unveiled a reality-horror series, produced by “The Walking Dead” creators. A Lilly Singh (||Superwoman||) world tour documentary is also projected. Thus, Red will prompt creators to strive for high-quality, high production-value content, much like the material screened at Buffer Fest.

On the other hand, many at Buffer Fest wondered if, in the aim for higher quality, YouTube is trying too hard to be the love-child of Netflix and Spotify premium – trying too hard to become the “future of television.”

“I’m not sure I want YouTube to look like cable TV when it grows up,” said author John Green in a recent vlog explaining the pros and cons of Red. “YouTube isn’t something you watch — it’s something you’re part of.”

While Red protects all content creators (especially small up-and-comers) from AdBlock, which restricts advertising and thus their main stream of revenue, Red arguably creates more inequality than the level playing field it intends to. Before, YouTube was a flat, universal platform of equal opportunity; anyone with Internet had just as much potential to reach an audience as anyone else. However, Red will create two classes of viewers: those who can pay and those who can’t. Now, regular YouTube users will be without access to the high-end content that events like Buffer Fest emphasize and celebrate.

One petition to stop Red already has over 16,000 signatures in just 10 days. YouTube is supposed to be an equalizer; a platform that anyone, regardless of age, nationality, experience, or socioeconomic status — can both consume and create on. I have the same opportunity to make a viral video just the same as Jenna Marbles once did with her webcam. Furthermore, YouTube as become a gateway to branch off into a variety of other mediums – films, podcasts, etc. To create inequality at the basic consumer level now is to restrict the content creators of the future. We all started as consumers, subscribers and fans.