Connor goes to Hollywood
Chasing stardom in YouTube's crowded universe
Valley Village is located next to North Hollywood, which isn’t very close to Hollywood at all. The Santa Monica Mountains, plus a handful of neighborhoods and freeway exchanges, separate Hollywood from North Hollywood. For the past several months, it has been impossible to drive between these neighborhoods without passing a billboard advertising a YouTube star. Most often, that star is Grace Helbig, a 28-year-old comedian who recently crossed over, landing her own honest-to-god television show on E!. Viewership of The Grace Helbig Show tanked quickly — by its third episode, it was only drawing 182,000 viewers, causing the network to move it from Friday to Sunday night. Helbig, meanwhile, still posts videos for her YouTube channel, where she has 2.6 million subscribers.
On a recent midsummer afternoon, Connor Manning was sitting in a Valley Village bistro, picking at his salad and considering Helbig’s level of celebrity, celebrity generally, and if that was what he really wanted. Manning is not famous. Except, perhaps, to the 64,000 people who were subscribed to his YouTube channel. That doesn’t sound like a lot, compared to the stars on the billboards, but it’s all relative. Sixty-four thousand people, he said — "that’s an NFL stadium."
Manning had just had his hair cut, shaved close on both sides, slicked back for the most part though stray locks escaped to cover one of his two very blue eyes. He was anxious — his knees bobbed and bounced under the table. "I’ve never been the one who’s been really assertive," he said. "But I’m in a place where I’m trying to practice that and, like, faking it in a way." He laughed. Just a few minutes earlier he had mentioned how hard he works to appear unguarded for his audience, his fans. If he wanted to develop his YouTube videos into a self-sustaining career, the kind where he wouldn’t have to wait tables on the side, he would need to present a more confident facade to the companies that control the pathways to larger audiences, more money, greater success. He’d need to fake it, maybe, or figure out another way.
Manning, 22, had moved to LA exactly two weeks before I met him, driving across the country from his home in the Baltimore suburbs where, for the better part of five and a half years, he’d made videos of himself and posted them to his YouTube channel, AConMann. For now, he’s crashing at his friend Sasha’s apartment in Studio City, just over the hills from Hollywood. Ever since he was in high school and probably even earlier, Manning had dreamed of coming to LA to make it as a performer, because this is where performers go to make it.
In recent years, the nature of Manning’s performance had evolved from something traditional — a zany sort of adolescent comedy act — into something more complicated, harder to pin down. At some point, his videos began to address much more of his own life: depression, addiction, bisexuality. His audience responded, his subscriber numbers steadily rose, and he began to think of what he was building as a viable, stand-alone career.
Tomorrow, at VidCon, he would begin figuring out just what that career might look like, especially now that he was here, in LA. VidCon is a conference that began six years ago, mostly for YouTubers like Manning, but has since metastasized to include Viners and Snapchatters and even Facebookers too, along with hoards of their fans. The conference also draws industry people — the people Manning needed to fake it for, and the gatekeepers to becoming this new kind of celebrity.
Among Manning’s earliest videos is one, posted five years ago and viewed 4,711 times, called "Legit Old Guy." In it, he narrates over a clip of a man parking a very small car in a very small garage. "That guy should be the president of the world," Manning says, looking squarely into the camera. A lot of his early videos are similar: he either points to an already popular thing on the internet, or weighs in on an evergreen topic of internet discussion — Twilight’s vampires, Lindsay Lohan’s sexuality, the rise of Auto-Tune. Manning called his web series "Generally Awesome," and even developed a tagline — "I’m Connor Manning and you’ve just become a little more awesome" — which managed to stick even after his videos became more personal. He dropped the tagline about five months ago.
The talent Manning has for extemporaneous speech appears, in his videos, innate. But he had been practicing his public speaking years before he made his first video. In high school, he was a star on the speech team, competing at the state and national level. He was a fierce competitor, ruthlessly confident.
Manning was, by all accounts, an ideal kid: a good student and son, endlessly goofy and positive. But he was troubled, too. His parents went through an ugly divorce; he never sees his biological father, and his stepfather was distant and the two never bonded. After high school, Manning went to George Mason University, where he began drinking heavily, grew depressed, and ultimately, considered suicide.
The next, dark period of his life — dropping out, living at home, going through therapy, his addiction and depression — is something Manning avoids discussing in great detail. For someone who semi-professionally confesses to the internet, he remains incredibly guarded, packaging his personal narrative in a way that insulates the messier, more intimate aspects. He doesn’t like to talk about what he was addicted to, specifically, nor does he talk about his depression in more than the broadest of strokes.
On November 2nd, 2012, Manning posted a video called "The Meaning of Life." He knows this date by heart. The video signaled a definitive shift, the beginning of something new. "I’ve been thinking a lot about time, and how crazy it is," Manning says in the video, launching into a brief and wide-eyed explanation of the theory of relativity. Then he reads questions from his audience. "Have you ever had suicidal thoughts?" someone asks. "Please give me some advice. I think you’re going to have one less viewer."
"Now, I could say a whole lot of things to this," Manning replies. "Too many things ... The answer is Yes, I have had those thoughts. Everybody has horrible times but if that weren't the case ... the good times wouldn’t be worth it." He goes back to the beginning, then the very beginning, the creation of the universe, and the improbable fact of our existence, born out of chaos. It’s not just how skillfully he connects his answer to the theme he’s previously laid out, but how he speaks from a place of deep experience without making it about himself. It’s universal. "To feel means you exist, and existence, in my opinion, outweighs any negative thing that could happen," he says. It was the first time he’d ever done anything online that was not solely designed to be funny. It was personal and helpful, and it was, he says, his way forward, his crucible.
At the end of 2012, he started attending community college, and, in the beginning of 2013, he got a job working customer relations at the National Aquarium. That got him out of his shell, and it also helped him save money for the move to LA he’d begun to imagine. Three years ago, he told his mom and stepdad that he wouldn’t be going back to university, that he wanted to pursue his dreams out West.
In the meantime, his videos had become more personal, with titles like "Falling for Straight People" and "Feeling Myself" and "Am I a Real Man" and "Would You Date Someone with Scars?" If you watch Manning’s channel, you feel that you know him. His mom, Cathy Williams, watched his videos from the very beginning, even when she couldn’t quite understand just what the heck it was he was after. She says the videos allowed her to watch her son transform from a goofy guy who worked hard for a laugh, "to just, like, an everyman."
None of Connor’s videos have gone viral, and he takes pride in that. It’s easy to make a viral video, he says, but it isn’t meaningful — a flash in the digital pan that doesn’t establish a connection with followers or guarantee a wave of new subscribers.
"I love my story individually, which is what I primarily tell, but I also like kind of validating everyone else’s story as well," he said that afternoon in the Valley Village cafe. I wondered aloud if he could monetize that. Connor told me that yes, yes he could; in fact he already had. Donations from viewers had helped him relocate cross-country. For the first time, he was being paid to attend VidCon.
The first VidCon, in 2010, took place in the Hyatt Regency in downtown Los Angeles. It was put together by sibling YouTubers known as the VlogBrothers — John and Hank Green. (John, the older brother, is also author of the YA bestsellers-turned movies The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns.) Attendees of the first and second VidCon speak wistfully about how intimate, low stakes, and fun those conferences were. It was a place to meet your internet buddies in real life. Sure, there were industry folks then, too, but they mostly helped creators with little tricks to grow traffic and build audience. Back then the fans moved in smaller, more manageable packs — they were respectful, almost. It all felt very collegial.
In its third year, VidCon moved to the Anaheim Convention Center, a much larger venue that sits next door to Disneyland. Industry people with serious money poured in. So did the fans.
For Manning, VidCon has become the signpost of his year, a way to take stock. His mom came with him to his first VidCon four years ago, because he was still in rough shape, and because she was curious just what this YouTube world looked like up close. Even with her there, Manning snuck off, got trashed, and didn’t return her calls for a night. They had a big fight. Still, Manning met the people who inspired him to be better, not just in his videos, but in his life. About a month after VidCon, on July 22nd, 2012, he got sober.
This year’s conference took place over three days in July. Thursday was "industry day," a chance for the businesses that run the platforms to fly in, meet the talent, mingle, and be home to their families by the weekend. The real fan and creator stuff — the panels, the meetups — didn’t begin in earnest until Friday, and continued through Saturday.
When I stepped into the enormous, airey outer atrium of the Anaheim Convention Center on VidCon’s first day, the first thing I noticed was the sticky sweet smell of teenage perfume and cologne. Across the convention center hall, packs of young adults with hair dyed in blues, purples, and rainbows huddled around power outlets, each other, and the occasional creator. On the second and third floors of the Center, the scene was decidedly more suit jackets and business casual. I kept climbing until I made my way to a balcony facing out over a line of food trucks, fountains, and a stage where stars from AwesomenessTV performed. Up here, the conversation circled around packaged content and talent incubation, crossed formats and investor appeal, cross-channel promotion and synergy, synergy, synergy.
Up here, the conversation circled around synergy, synergy, synergy
AwesomenessTV is a multi-channel network, or MCN, one of a slew of new and powerful talent incubators and content distributors to have emerged in the rush to the online video goldmine. For the very biggest YouTube stars — comedians, gamers, and unboxers of new products — it is not uncommon to make well over $1 million a year. According to the YouTube stat monitor Social Blade, an unboxer that goes by the name disneycollectorbr could be earning more than $1 million a month. Signing creators at that level is lucrative business. Even managing a dozen lesser stars, with several hundred thousand subscribers apiece, is enough to build a healthy media company. Though Manning exists in a lower and less profitable tier — creators with under 100,000 subscribers — he had had been signed to an MCN called Big Frame, which describes itself as a company "building sustainable media brands around YouTube’s most influential channels, and connecting advertisers with their highly engaged audiences." He ended his partnership with Big Frame in December; recently, the company was acquired by AwesomenessTV.
Manning said he’d left Big Frame because the company’s advertiser-driven business model wasn’t what he was looking for. But advertising is where the serious money is and always will be, and the serious money, once it got very serious, is always with the same entrenched media companies: AwesomenessTV is owned by Dreamworks and Hearst; another major MCN, Maker Studios, is owned by Disney. The only newish player among the media behemoths is the platform itself, YouTube, which is owned by Google.
Later in the day, in an auditorium bigger than all the rest, Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, spoke to hundreds of her industry peers. The fans, she said, are "leaning in" and "changing the definitions of what it means to be a celebrity." A Variety poll from earlier this year found eight of the top 10 most famous, recognizable, and important celebrities to teens were YouTubers. During her presentation, Wojcicki unveiled a redesigned YouTube play button that looked like a diamond: a special button for special creators, with channels of 10 million subscribers or more. In mock awards show fashion, she presented physical, heavy-looking versions of the button to a few of the creators who were there: the Epic Rap Battles of History guys (12.4 million subs), the duo behind the comedy channel Smosh (21 million subs).
Manning is aware of the push for ever greater numbers, and the opportunity at stake. He is tactical with the content he produces. He knew, for example, that when he made a video about his bisexuality, or a video called "Too Gay, Too Straight," it would do well, because LGBT videos do well on YouTube. He could do one of those, then get away with maybe three or four weirder ones, maybe shot in a single take.
"I look at Hank, at what he’s done … and I just, I want to do that," Connor told me the day before VidCon. Hank is Hank Green. He is Manning’s hero, not just because of his success, but because he seems to have preserved exactly who he is despite it: a nerdy guy who makes videos about things he’s passionate about, and makes people passionate about those things, too. He’s a force for good in the world, Manning said. He also knew that Hank Green would be at VidCon, and there was a good chance they’d be in the same room at the same time, and maybe get a chance to meet, and talk, creator to creator. That would be cool, but he didn’t want to force it, make things weird. People were coming up to Hank Green all the time, wanting things from him, and he didn’t want to be one of those people.
On the morning of his second day at Vidcon, Manning was slumped in a chair in the lobby of the Hilton, a stone’s throw from the convention center and where he and most attendees were staying. He was staring at his phone and double-checking a list of questions for a panel on mental health he would soon be moderating. Behind him, a line of weary, bleary-eyed parents snaked its way out of the hotel Starbucks. Manning yawned and stretched his long skinny arms dramatically, then placed his hands over his face. "I’m tired," he said. Manning is often tired. For a while, his Twitter bio read "a little bit tired." Playing a version of himself for an audience of tens of thousands twice a week is bound to be draining. Plus, now, VidCon.
The panel he was moderating featured Will Shepherd, Kati Morton, and Savannah Brown, who all work in a similar confessional vein to Manning. Brown is a poet, Morton is a therapist, and Shepherd is a gay man who had recently begun to grapple with PTSD and who has the largest audience of the bunch (208,000 subs).
Half an hour before the panel was slated to begin, the room filled with attendees, gossiping about VidCons past. The panelists entered to huge applause. Manning asked them to introduce themselves, then asked how they ended up on YouTube.
"We’re kind of like the outcasts," Brown said. "What I love," Shepherd said, "is this is like where the weird kids go to express themselves," Then, later: "None of us have massive channels, but we are all so raw." Part of that rawness was, the group agreed, admitting when they did not always know the answer, that they were just figuring it out themselves. "I really don’t know what I’m doing," Manning agreed. "I’m living the experience and then making videos as my way through it. The drawback is people presume to know what I’ve been through or am going through. They come up to me and go, Are you okay? Are you okay? No, I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m just tired."
During the Q&A portion of the panel, a middle-aged woman in the audience stood and spoke to the room for a long time about how she saw millennials and post-millennials. They were all, in her eyes, spiritually lost. Eventually, Morton cut her off. "Being lost isn’t a problem," she said, and the room erupted in applause.
An hour after the mental health panel, there was an informal meet up, an LGBT hangout, outside the convention center. There was no line for autographs or selfies here; many of these fans were in fact old friends or people Manning had known a very long time online and occasionally in real life. Someone in the group described some of the Vine stars as looking like beautiful space alien creatures; another person in the circle fawned over Manning’s hair cut. Manning, uneasy with all the attention, pointed to a trash can. "This is me. This is who I am," he said.
Hank Green looks young for his age (which is 35), but old for VidCon. He has dimpled cheeks, slightly mussed hair, and the air of a hip, young dad. Green has interviewed President Obama, co-founded a record label, and invented a pair of 2-D glasses for people who want to watch 3-D movies in two dimensions. Beyond the Vlogbrothers channel he runs with his brother, Hank is involved with at least a dozen other YouTube channels.
Two years ago, Green founded a crowdfunding company called Subbable, which let people who enjoyed the work of certain creators donate money to them, either through a one-time payment or a monthly subscription. In March, Subbable was acquired by Patreon, a much larger but still private company that essentially offers the same payment structure, while taking a 5 percent cut of all donations. Last year Patreon announced it paid $1 million per month to its creators, of which there are more than 100,000; this year the company says its pledges have grown 500 percent, and that its 20,000 "financially active" creators are pulling from a monthly pool of millions of dollars. Manning is one of them. Currently, he makes $568.05 a month from Patreon donations. Seventeen of his "patrons" pay at least $25 a month, and, for their donations, receive a handwritten letter from Connor. It’s not a fortune, but that income — which he says is increasing — allowed him to move to LA, and will soon help him get his own apartment.
Friday afternoon, after the morning’s mental health talk and midday LGBT meetup, Manning sat waiting for his turn on a series of filmed panels for UpLife, a YouTube channel for online communities against sexual violence. Hank Green was there, sitting near him, being filmed for another panel. Manning was extremely attuned to the way most people approached Hank at VidCon, treating him as an object, a celebrity. He didn’t want that. And so although they were in the same small room for nearly an hour, he and Green never spoke.
Later, I talked with Green, and asked him about his path, and Manning’s, and if they were at all analogous; if Green’s career might shine a light on how Manning might come up, too. "No," Green said. "My path is not repeatable, but I don’t know of any path that is." Someone could go from 10,000 subscribers to 100,000, he said, but beyond that, in today’s environment, things get murky. VlogBrothers, with their 2.6 million subscribers, have been around a relatively long time — eight years to YouTube’s 10. Their channel grew popular organically — a remarkable feat and an increasingly difficult proposition in 2015. The reason is simple: there’s simply too much money on the line.
Green said that in order to develop a very popular, sustainable franchise with millions of subscribers in this new, moneyed era, you need institutional support: MCNs eager to promote your brand through their other, more popular talent and channels, or connect you to high paying branded deals. It all meant faster access to resources (money, better cameras, lighting, stages) that could free you up to make loads of content. But in time, Green said, that support "goes from enabling you, to people or companies asking you to do things for them, because they gave you money."
There is, however, another, hidden landscape. On Twitch.tv, a tip-based, live-streaming video game platform (bought by Amazon last year for $970 million) gamers make a decent and sometimes great income with modest but extremely dedicated audiences. "You can have 10,000 viewers and make a better living than the million-plus guys," Green said. All you needed was to become the thing — the podcast, the song, the video, the habit — for some people, and they’d pay $5 a month for you.
Manning knows that to build a career, he needs to think beyond YouTube subscriber numbers — he needs to build an audience that will zealously follow him to Snapchat, or Facebook, or some other platform that doesn’t exist yet. It’s a business reality that Manning is innately attuned to. "Essentially I don’t think people are following my videos," Manning had told me over our first lunch in Valley Village. "I think they’re following me, as a person."
Outside, after the panel, I asked Manning if he was sorry he didn’t get a chance to talk to his hero. He shrugged. "Of course I am a little bummed," he said, "but also not really. Because I know it will happen. I know I am exactly where I need to be."
Back in the San Fernando Valley, a few days after VidCon, Manning was draped across the couch at his friend Sasha’s apartment. Manning’s bedroom consisted of a mattress in the corner of the living room, clothing confettied in piles around it. He waved his hand at the scene and said, "This is it. This is home, for now."
Over the three days at VidCon he’d gained about a thousand subscribers. He’d met a bunch of new creators. He’d moderated a panel and nearly met his hero. Still, he was rootless and in a post conference malaise. At least, he said, he was in decent health: he hadn’t caught the VidCon Virus, a flu-like disease born out of the annual confluence of teens, their germs and hormones rampaging. He needed an apartment. Without a home, he said, he felt like he was still drifting.
This VidCon, he said, had felt different than previous ones — he was actively building a business, developing a strategy. In the end, he didn’t have to fake it as hard as he thought he might. People seemed to know him already. "I didn’t have to explain what I do," he said.
"This is it. This is home, for now."
He was, he said, being courted by a few MCNs, but he wasn’t interested in a contract. "Not until I know I can be a priority for companies," he said. "I really want to have some negotiating power, because I don’t want to be treated as an afterthought again."
He was looking into the idea of partnerships. A few weeks after Vidcon, he did a branded video, his first in years, for a company called Famebit. It felt different than similar projects he’d done with Big Frame — he was in control, and didn’t feel like he was diminishing who he was, his own brand. With the money from that, and Patreon, he’d be able to pay rent off internet work alone.
Recently, Manning texted me: he’d signed a lease. A bouquet of exclamation points followed. It was a studio near his friends in the Valley, not too far from the hills. Beyond them was Hollywood proper, with its billboards of YouTube stars standing right alongside movie stars, reality TV stars, pop stars. He’d be living alone for the first time. He was getting closer to where it was all happening, and he could, he said, finally start building something on his own. It felt like the real beginning of this new stage, finally.