For a long time, YouTube stars have been a strange-but-undeniable force in the entertainment industry. Whether they're vlogging about their favorite pop stars, demonstrating the perfect liquid eyeliner technique or just turning their living rooms into ball pits for some reason, the best YouTubers have the ability to attract millions of viewers to a rapidly-growing platform - and that has major brands and advertisers eager to tap into their popularity.
But as the industry is beginning to realize, racking up millions of views and making a profit can be two different things. Disney had high hopes when it spent $675 million on YouTube multi-channel network Maker Studios back in 2014, but last month the company announced it would be making major cutbacks to focus on more bankable digital stars, slashing their roster from 60,000 individual creators to around 300. For a YouTube star to survive, they need to be more than just clickworthy.
Some of the biggest digital stars are now making the leap into mainstream entertainment - starring in movies, launching TV shows, starting their own media companies. But so far, high-profile examples like "The Grace Helbig Show" and the "Camp Takota" movie haven't really caught on with traditional audiences. Can this wave of new talent compete, or will the industry eventually drop them for the next big trend?
Here are some of the notable hits and misses to keep in mind as the digital media industry continues to grow.
If you've somehow managed to miss him so far, Tyler is a social media celebrity with a One-Direction-level fan following - probably because he's a self-proclaimed "professional fangirl" himself. The gay YouTuber and comedian started vlogging in college, built up an audience and launched to internet fame through his adoration of 1D and Darren Chris from "Glee," among other things. He's also connected with millions of young people about gay rights and social issues, promoted causes like the Trevor Project to support LGBT youth, starred in a documentary called "SNERVOUS" and written a memoir called Binge. He's become more and more visible in Hollywood in recent years, working the red carpet at Vanity Fair's Oscar party and landing a spot on the digital celebrity season of "The Amazing Race." It didn't take long for all this positive internet energy to hit Ellen DeGeneres' radar, and now Tyler is tucked firmly under her wing, working on his own digital show on EllenTube and planning to develop projects for television later on.
Grace is one of the most recognizable and likable YouTube stars out there, with her quirky, positive brand of comedy earning her a loyal audience. Starting out as an aspiring actor and comedian in New York, she made videos for "My Damn Channel" and got them 2.5 million subscribers before she ran into a common issue for digital stars: her content was making tons of money for the network, but she didn't own the rights to any of it. She made the bold decision to start her own channel and rebuild her audience from scratch, and she's now one of the biggest success stories on YouTube, with starring roles in movies like "Camp Takota" and "Dirty 30." That wasn't enough to save her E! television series "The Grace Helbig Show," however - it lasted only eight episodes because she had trouble bringing her large audience to a new platform. Even for YouTubers of Grace's caliber, the crossover to mainstream media is a tricky one.
You'll recognize Casey if you tuned in to the Oscars - he starred in this ad from Samsung, promoting a generation of adventurous, innovative content creators filming their lives on their phones. A popular YouTube star with 6.5 million subscribers, Casey filmed in-depth reviews of technology like the latest DJI Phantom drone or the MacBook Pro Touch Bar. He's also done a series of jaw-dropping viral stunts, like being towed behind a Jeep on a snowboard through the blizzard-choked streets of Manhattan. Recently, however, Casey's given up daily vlogging to directly challenge (and join) the mainstream media. His social news app Beme was acquired by CNN, and he's collaborating with the network to develop a media company that "penetrates the thick, strong, solid-steel bullshit shield that this generation cautiously holds up in between them and everything being thrown at them," according to an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. First in the lineup is a new YouTube channel where he will host a daily news show, aiming to rebuild consumers' trust in reliable sources in the media. Is that even possible in today's political environment? We're about to find out.
Lilly Singh aka IISuperwomanII
This Canadian comedian, singer and rapper started making YouTube videos in 2010 as a way to deal with depression - and since then she has become an entertainment heavyweight through sheer charisma and willpower. Lilly was the highest-paid female YouTuber of 2016 according to Forbes, and she was voted Favorite YouTube Star at the 2017 People's Choice Awards. Famous for her observational humor and in-costume satirical skits about her Punjabi heritage, IISuperwomanII uses her platform of 11 million subscribers to encourage and uplift her young viewers. She's collaborated with celebrities like Ariana Grande and Ed Sheeran, and she personally helped her idol Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to launch his own YouTube career. Her international performance tour is documented in the movie "A Trip to Unicorn Island," and she's about to release her first book, How to Be a Bawse: A Guide to Conquering Life. For Lilly, the best way forward is to be a star on her own terms.
Sketch comedy duo Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla got their start in 2005 by lip-synching to the Pokemon theme song, just for fun - a video that racked up more than 25 million views before it was taken down by a copyright claim. Twelve years later they run a full-on entertainment empire of ten channels through Defy Media, including Smosh Games and Shut Up! Cartoons, while their main channel ranks 7th on YouTube at 22.6 million subscribers. In 2015 they released one of the first major YouTube films, "Smosh: The Movie," and the next year they appeared in "The Angry Birds Movie" as the voices of Hal and Bubbles. Their latest movie "Ghostmates," about a guy who moves into an apartment haunted by an obnoxious ghost who hangs out with T-Pain (yes, that T-Pain), launched on YouTube's new subscription service YouTube Red in December. The overarching question is whether Smosh's crazy sense of humor and online following translate to mainstream movie audiences, and whether YouTube Red will be a profitable business model in the long term when viewers are used to watching videos for free.
Like many YouTubers, comedian and LGBT role model Hannah Hart had humble beginnings - a random 2011 video about trying to make a grilled cheese sandwich while drunk on red wine. This inspired the popular and endearing show "My Drunk Kitchen," which eventually led to a string of increasingly famous celebrity guests and a parody cookbook/self-help guide. She's also opened up to her young audience about personal issues like depression and sexuality, published a book of narrative essays and collaborated on several digital movies with her fellow comedy YouTubers Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart (no relation). She's just signed another movie deal with Lionsgate to star in an LGBT romantic comedy, and this year she'll be taking the same big leap that Grace did before her: starring in a television show. Hannah will join the Food Network for a six-episode culinary travelogue where she dines out in different cities across the country, accompanied by digital content on websites and social media. We'll see if this format is a better match for YouTube audiences than Grace's E! talk show.
Franchesca Ramsey aka Chescaleigh
Social issues aren't getting less contentious anytime soon, and that means we'll be seeing a lot of Chescaleigh. Her "Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls" video from five years ago has amused and/or provoked nearly 12 million people so far. In the meantime, she's used her combination of academic insight and biting comedy to make a career out of exploring race and gender in entertainment - so if Twitter is blowing up over a celebrity doing problematic shit, you'll most likely find her in the thick of the argument. She hosts an ongoing YouTube series called "MTV Decoded," and she broke through to television as a contributor to "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" - but unfortunately, the show was dropped by Comedy Central last August. Recently she was selected by YouTube as an ambassador for the Creators For Change initiative, giving her a $25,000 grant to create content about key social issues. Watch this space.
With transgender rights becoming the next big civil rights issue, model and makeup vlogger Gigi Gorgeous finds herself in a unique position to raise awareness. She started a makeup tutorial channel on YouTube in 2008, when she identified as a gay male; so her coming out first as transgender and later as a lesbian happened in real time on camera, making her an inspiration for her 2.5 million subscribers. She vlogged all through her transition and began to include a wider range of videos exploring her life, LGBT issues and anti-bullying. She's appeared on TV shows like "Access Hollywood" and "Project Runway: All Stars," and this year she was the subject of a Sundance Film Festival official selection called "Gigi Gorgeous: This is Everything" created by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple. Whatever's next in her future - a book deal, maybe her own reality TV show - Gigi could be poised to reshape the industry.
Until recently, PewDiePie aka Felix Kjellberg was famous for being that loud Swedish gamer who became YouTube's biggest star by letting his fans watch him crack jokes and play video games - a strangely lucrative business model that gives developers a fresh new way to promote their titles to the gaming community. Now, of course, PewDiePie is famous for being dumped by Disney and YouTube Red for making anti-Semitic jokes. While this scandal probably won't put a noticeable dent in his fortune or 54-million-strong audience, it does show the risk for mainstream industries investing in YouTube stars: someone who goes viral for positive, money-making reasons can just as quickly go viral for offensive behavior. It will be interesting to see how PewDiePie recovers his footing, and what companies will be willing to accept that risk in the future to gain access to his fanbase.
This lipstick-smeared YouTube superstar is banking on two things in her jump to the bigger screen: that Netflix could be a more natural place for digital talent to thrive than traditional television, and that people still confused about the whole YouTube thing will get a kick out of her fame-obsessed alter ego. Miranda Sings, otherwise known as comedian Colleen Ballinger, is everything people like to mock about YouTube culture - an absurd wannabe pop star who gains an audience despite (or maybe because of) her glaring lack of talent. After entertaining her 7.6 million subscribers for the last nine years, Colleen turned Miranda's fictional life into an eight-episode Netflix series called "Haters Back Off," featuring Miranda's delusional uncle and manager Jim (Steve Little), her mom Bethany (Angela Kinsey) and her sister Emily (Francesca Reale). TV critics are still divided on whether the bizarre comedy that works in a six-minute video can carry an entire series - but "Haters Back Off" has been renewed for a second season, so she must be doing something right.
Zoella aka Zoe Sugg is a popular fashion/beauty vlogger from England. One of countless YouTubers sharing makeup tutorials, shopping hauls and vlogs about their daily routine, Zoella has leveraged her Instagram-perfect lifestyle and charming on-camera persona into an audience of 12 million subscribers and her own makeup line. In 2014 she published her first novel Girl Online, about a 15-year-old blogger who goes viral and falls in love with a Harry Styles-esque pop star. The book promptly broke the record for highest first-week sales of a first-time novelist and led to two sequels, Girl Online: On Tour and Girl Online: Going Solo - so it's hard to imagine that a "Girl Online" movie or TV series is far behind. The novels ran into scandal, however, when it was revealed that Zoella (like many YouTubers before her) secretly worked with a ghostwriter; and the controversy resurfaced in a recent Guardian article, where columnist Zoe Williams called her an "artist of self-engrossment" who is partly responsible for declining teen literacy - despite the fact that Zoella launched a digital book club last year. This provoked a quick and furious response from Zoella's hordes of loyal fans. "It's refreshing to see how many people roll their eyes at some of the things the mainstream media write!" she tweeted. "I'm almost used to it now."