One of the most popular channels on YouTube is aimed toward people who play video games. It's got tons of content — thousands of game reviews, how-to videos of people gaming away enthusiastically, even little homemade movies that people have made using video-game software.
That last format is a user-generated phenomenon called machinima — "little m" machinima. "Big M" Machinima is a company, and it wants to be a new media empire. It's the entity behind that YouTube channel.
It was started, originally, by a young man in Scotland who came up with the word "machinima" — a portmanteau term, recalls Hugh Hancock, for "machine" and "cinema."
Back in the late '90s, Hancock was part of a group of hard-core gamers who commandeered their game software to make their own animated movies. So suddenly a big, heavily muscled fighter character, say, could be the star of a story a gamer made up.
"The early ones were made inside games like Quake and Doom," says Sanjay Sharma, now an executive at Machinima. "These characters are inside a video game, but they're being manipulated and puppeteered and voice-overed to enact an entirely new story" — a story that could stand on its own.
Hancock, the Scottish guy, started Machinima.com as a space for the form's fan community. But soon he was overwhelmed by submissions — and hundreds of thousands of views. So he sold the website to a couple of Hollywood entrepreneurs.
"We were not unlike a lot of startups, in kind of trying to find our way," says Sharma, an early hire. Right at the beginning, he says, the company decided to do something that felt risky.
"We made a bet on YouTube," he remembers, "and the bet was that this is the platform that is going to win the lion's share of video viewing."
That seems like an obvious call now, but back in 2006, nobody knew how big YouTube was going to be. Back then, most companies published video content on their own websites, not on YouTube channels. Machinima pioneered one back when they were novelties.
The company gathered hundreds of creative users — mostly young men — to create amateur animated movies. One of them, Ross Scott, put two bored cops in a futuristic dystopia in a series called Civil Protection, which he created using elements from the game Half Life 2.
Starting five years ago, Scott says, he made about 60 videos for Machinima. But he never intends to freelance for them again.
"My personal experience has been that it's been unethical and predatory," he tells NPR.
Scott ended up in a lawsuit — which he settled, so he can't really talk about details. But plenty of others started complaining about Machinima online, about how it tried to control copyrights and paid creators less and less while scooping up more and more advertising and investors.
Scaling up operations is a struggle for all kinds of media companies, of course. When Machinima hired Nanea Reeves as chief operating officer last year, she immediately set to work to address the outfit's reputation.
"I think it's one of the things I'm most proud of, is how we have turned the corner on providing better support and more opportunities for our partners," Reeves said when I brought up complaints like Scott's.
A lot of what creators — "creative partners," as they're called at the company — are posting on Machinima these days are videos of themselves playing video games. One young British man, who calls himself The Syndicate, has made enough money from his how-to videos on Machinima to buy his mom a house, says Reeves.
"Some of these kids make a lot of money," Reeves points out. "There are many who make over a thousand dollars a month."
And Machinima — like a lot of YouTube channels — is getting slicker. It's partnering with major studios to make videos it hopes will attract the same nerdily-inclined audience who follow some of TV's most popular shows — The Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead.
Machinima developed its own Walking Dead online series, in fact, in partnership with AMC, the cable network that airs the TV show. And it created a prequel to Battlestar Galatica.
Jay Sampson, who runs Machinima's advertising operation, says the company intends to be something bigger than simply a cable channel.
"We want to be on a billion devices," he says. Phones, gaming consoles, maybe even something as old-fashioned as your TV.
But even though Machinima is the top video network for young men — and, with nearly 2.5 billion monthly views, one of the biggest successes on YouTube — it's still struggling with what comes next.
Just this year alone, the company has gone through two rounds of layoffs. And the entrepreneurs who first bought Machinima from Hugh Hancock are stepping down from their current jobs. For Machinima to become the media empire they dream of, they say, it needs more professional management.
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