Why The Walking Dead’s creator is betting on YouTube with a PewDiePie show

When YouTube announced its new subscription service last month, original movies and TV shows were a big part of the equation, and the company rattled off a murderer’s row of online talent. People like PewDiePie, Lilly Singh, and The Fine Brothers are all creating new projects for the service, but it was another name that stood out most of all: Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead.

Kirkman’s company Skybound Entertainment is producing what could very well be YouTube Red’s flagship show, Scare PewDiePie. The announcement caps off a busy year. There’s been the debut of Fear the Walking Dead, a series order for Outcast at Cinemax, Gary Whitta’s web series Nerd Court, a new virtual reality project called Gone — and that’s not even counting the multi-platform behemoth that is the Walking Dead franchise. Since Kirkman and his producing partner David Alpert launched Skybound in 2010, the company has aggressively established a creative beachhead across multiple mediums, spanning comic books, games, TV, and movies — and now they’re ready to help YouTube itself become the home for premium content it so clearly wants to be.

I met up with David Alpert — or DA, as Kirkman calls him — at the YouTube Space LA soundstage in Los Angeles, a few hours before the pair were scheduled for a public “fireside chat” to talk about their work. We’re tucked away out of sight, but behind us we can already hear the crowd gathering for the event. With his quick, deadpan delivery and tall frame, Alpert calls to mind a young Vince Vaughn, and he explains that when it came to Scare PewDiePie, one factor was key: holding onto the exuberance and charisma that have made the YouTube star so successful in the first place.

"To be reductionist, he’s become famous by playing video games and getting scared. So what if we make those games real?" Alpert asks. The show, which Skybound made in conjunction with Maker Studios, drops PewDiePie into physical recreations of his favorite scary games. Think of it as a reality prank show like Punk’d, but with horror and video games. "How freaked out, how creeped out, how scared can we make him? It was our goal to turn a human being into a pile of quivering jelly for our amusement."

Acting scared isn’t the same thing as being scared, however, and given that PewDiePie is a producer on the show, the team had to go to extensive lengths to make sure he didn’t know what was coming. Alpert explains that Skybound essentially created a second "shadow" production team to orchestrate an entirely different layer of gags and scares — ones that could be kept safely from PewDiePie’s prying eyes. "It’s like a play within a play, where he thinks, ‘Okay, that was the production meeting.’ Great. Now we have the [real] production meeting," Alpert said. "So the guy that Mr. Pie thought was the director actually wasn’t the director, and we only told him that at the very end of the shoot."

Robert Kirkman slides in next to us as we chat, nodding. It’s a particularly heinous day for traffic in a city defined by it, but when the prolific writer joins us he doesn’t bother with the customary LA cop-out. "It’s not an acceptable excuse in Los Angeles. You can’t just show up [late] at places and go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, the traffic was terrible!’"

Alpert takes a beat. "You can’t do that?"

With his bushy beard and T-shirt, Kirkman seems like Alpert’s polar opposite, but that impression falls away the moment they start riffing. The pair first met 15 years ago at a comic convention in Chicago when Kirkman was starting out, and the history’s obvious as they trade gags and jabs. They seem more like brothers than business partners, and while Kirkman’s obviously the creative heart of Skybound, he’s clearly just as much of an ambitious businessman, as excited about talking about the potential of the company’s work with YouTube as The Walking Dead. (Perhaps even more so; when I ask him about the fate of a major character on Walking Dead — you know the one — he refuses to comment whatsoever. When I mention the massive online outcry, he only says, "It’s a fun experiment.")

The Walking Dead promotional still (AMC)

From left to right: David Alpert, Robert Kirkman, and Greg Nicotero on the set of The Walking Dead.

"Scare PewDiePie is something that I think is fairly unique," Kirkman says. "There’s certainly been shows before that are prank shows, but to build a narrative around a single person the way we have with Felix—"

"Mr. Pie," Alpert interrupts.

"Mr. Pie, sorry. The way that we’re able to stick with him exclusively, it’s almost like the pranks kind of roll into each other from episode to episode in some pretty interesting and complicated ways, that I don’t know that we necessarily would have been able to do on television."

YouTube has dabbled in original programming before, though (like most people) you might not remember. In 2012, YouTube rolled out original channels, only to kill off 60 percent of them less than a year later. At least from a production standpoint, the company seems to have learned some lessons, with Alpert glowing about YouTube’s help with everything from equipment rentals to soundstages, but he also acknowledges that subscription-based original programming is uncharted territory.

"YouTube is an amazing platform because it’s reached out, has hundreds of millions of views; it’s insane what it’s been able to achieve. But it hasn’t been harnessed or directed the way that we think of Netflix or HBO or Hulu, which is almost a top-down, organized system of programming," he says. "YouTube has always been much more chaotic than that, and I think the chaos has allowed it to exist. PewDiePie wouldn’t exist off of YouTube. His rise, and the rise of YouTubers in general, is part of the fact that the platform just let you do what you wanted to do. So I feel like trying to do something a little more top-down and organized is on one hand, sort of anathema to the YouTube ethos. But at the same time, it’s anarchy a little bit — so sure, why not have some top-down stuff while people are still uploading all the crazy videos that they want?"

That sense of free-ranging, creative chaos fits with the spirit of Skybound itself, which from its early days has been framed as a company focused on helping creators cross media and exploit their creations, without giving up control and ownership. It originally started as a way to help Kirkman take advantage of the merchandising rights he’d retained for The Walking Dead, and has since helped people like video game writer Christian Cantamessa (Red Dead Redemption) cross into feature films (Skybound’s first movie, Air) and TV writer Chris Dingess (Agent Carter) make his comics debut (Manifest Destiny).

Skybound recently joined YouTube Space LA for its annual Halloween short film competition. Under the partnership, Skybound picked eight different filmmakers from YouTube — ranging from MysteryGuitarMan to Lana McKissack — and put them through a writing workshop with the company’s film development team. Each filmmaker then made a short on a set inspired by Kirkman’s creations, and the eventual winner will walk away with a development deal at the company later this year.

"David Fincher comes out of the video world; why is YouTube any less relevant than music videos?"

"We’re looking for people that have very clean, clear, distinctive voices," Alpert says. "Whether it’s comedy or drama, or music, or whatever it is; that they speak to a very specific thing. A tone." And despite the continued perception by many that YouTube is a haven for mindless reaction videos, Alpert sees it a fertile creative landscape with a clear historical precedent when it comes to discovering talent. "People became stars in music videos. David Fincher comes out of the video world; that’s a proving ground now for directors. So why is YouTube any less relevant or important than music videos? I’d argue that given the amount of time the next generation spends immersed in YouTube, it’s perhaps more relevant."

Skybound is one of a handful of smaller, multi-faceted production companies — like Legendary Entertainment or Blumhouse Productions — that understand traditional media structures are changing on an almost daily basis, and that the only way to avoid playing catch-up tomorrow is to explore and take advantage of new platforms today. That’s part of the thinking behind Gone, the virtual reality thriller series it’s working on for the Gear VR. (Kirkman sees the way in which audiences determine the pacing and experience of VR as a close cousin to the way people experience a graphic novel.)

But Skybound is still a house built by the cultural phenomenon of The Walking Dead — a fact underscored by the noise from the waiting crowd, which has grown from steady murmur to dull roar over the course of our conversation. But the way Alpert sees things playing out, that kind of overwhelming success isn’t the only path forward.

"[FX president] John Landgraf was talking about how we’ve hit ‘peak television.’ I don’t know that I agree. I think we’ve hit peak old-model television. I think that what we’re seeing is there still can be tentpole shows — there can be The Walking Dead, there can be Game of Thrones — there can be things that get mass audiences. There can be things like PewDiePie, who gets 10 billion views. That’s as massive an audience as there is. But I think as you fracture an audience, you’re able to find the equivalent to a long tail in programming. And you find things that become little audiences or communities around that. So I think you’ll find these niche models building up around content, that people who like a very specific type of genre — whether it’s comedy, horror, or whatever; fantasy — there will be a show for those types of people."

But in the short term, how does one track whether a program is connecting or not; what does success for something like Scare PewDiePie look like?

"We make a show that we think is great, that we think will connect with audiences, but once we’re done with it — and we’ll market, and promote, and we’ll stump for it, and we’ll encourage people to watch it — but once it’s done we feel that as creators we’ve done our job," Alpert says.

Kirkman nods sagely. "And any show that fails, we get the logo for the show tattooed on DA’s back."