Teenagers Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla were living at home in 2005, months after graduating from high school, when they began to unlock the secrets of going viral.
“We had no one to hang out with and we just decided to joke around in my room and record ourselves on the webcam that my dad had let me borrow lip-synching the ‘Power Rangers’ theme song I had downloaded that day,” Padilla told Tech Insider. “We died laughing and thought that it was, for some reason, worthy of putting on the internet.”
The duo, who called themselves Smosh, posted their “Power Rangers” video to Myspace. It got enough reaction that they filmed a followup to the song from “Mortal Kombat.” Then they polled their audience of around 20 or so to see what video they should do next. “Pokémon” was the clear winner.
The two filmed themselves in Padilla’s bedroom lip-synching the theme while showing the two work together to capture a “wild” Pikachu. Afterall, the goal of the hit phenomenon, as made clear in the song’s theme, is that you “gotta catch them all.”
The result was nostalgic, bizarre, and slightly controversial.
The guys lip-synched a portion of the theme with their belly buttons.
At another point, Anthony serenades a Mountain Dew bottle telling it, “You’re my best friend, in a world we must defend,” before drinking from it.
In one split second, Anthony can be spotted in just a pair of Spongebob Squarepants boxer shorts and socks. And then there was the moment where Ian licked a Jesus figurine. Just ’cause.
Most impressive, the video showed off some cool effects, making a Pikachu plush disappear inside a Pokéball and Anthony emerge from another as a Pokémon called “Anthonymon.”
They posted the video to YouTube in November 2005, a platform which wouldn’t leave beta for another month, and with a little help from friends and followers, they got it to the front page. They were as shocked as anyone when it started going viral and kept growing to become the most popular video on the site, eventually amassing over 24 million views.
And then they were stars like the world had never seen. By April 2006, a New York Times article referred to Smosh as “viral video’s Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.” By December, they were featured in the “Person of the Year: You” issue of Time Magazine.
It hardly mattered in 2007 when the “Pokémon” video was pulled due to a copyright claim from The Pokémon Company: By then Smosh was already building a comedy empire.
Building the Empire
As successful as Smosh was in the early days of YouTube, their growth in the past decade has been equally impressive as the two expanded past lip-synch videos into comedy shorts.
Today, the two claim over 7 billion views across six YouTube channels on more than 3,000 videos. Their original Smosh channel is currently the fourth most popular YouTube channel. An original site, Smosh.com, launched in 2002, averages 30 million monthly unique page views. Hecox and Padilla, now both 27, even have their own film, “Smosh: The Movie,” which recently premiered at VidCon in Anaheim, California and is available on video on demand.
How did they do it? Some of the credit goes to Defy Media’s chief content officer Barry Blumberg, a Disney executive who started working with Hecox and Padilla back in 2006.
“I didn’t really get it, but they were good looking guys and they had a great name and they had millions of views very early on in the YouTube universe,” said Blumberg. “And, I said, there must be something to this. Clearly they’re connecting with an audience. I reached out and flew up to Sacramento and sat down with the guys and said, ‘You know, I think you could really build something here. And, if we’re successful, you’ll never have to get a regular job.'”
“There was no money on YouTube at the time. It was just for fun,” he added. “They were making hundreds of dollars a month from display ads on their website and selling T-shirts.”
The guys liked what they heard and Blumberg joined Smosh, mentoring the two and helping them grow from a two-man comedy duo to a structured business. About six months later, YouTube came knocking.
“We were one of ten channels that were considered to be part of this new program YouTube was doing where they would include ads on your video and they would make money off of it,” said Padilla. “And we were just ecstatic because we were like, ‘Oh wow, we can do this for, you know, we can kind of spend more time, almost full time, doing this, and we can make money to pay for equipment. We can pay a camera guy and do a few other things that we’ve been doing for a long time. Before that, everything was coming out of our pocket.”
Starting in May 2007, YouTube’s partnership program allowed users to share revenue produced by advertising on the site after it took a reported 45% cut. The guys joined up along with other popular YouTubers of the time like Lonelygirl15 and LisaNova. They soon started taking college courses on acting, improv, and screenwriting while focusing on YouTube full time.
While it was a nice source of initial income, Blumberg kept thinking longterm.
“When YouTube came calling with their partner program and guaranteed $US9,000 a month that couldn’t be our sole source of revenue,” explained Blumberg. “So we had to continue to upload video content to our website using our own player. We had to make sure that we had a merchandise business. We had to make sure that we sold display ads on the website.”
“Regularly scheduled programming was not something they thought about,” said Blumberg. “Writing scripts was not really something that they had initially thought about.”
Before Blumberg joined Smosh, Hecox and Padilla were distributing videos maybe once or twice a month on YouTube. After he joined, output became more frequent.
“Each of the videos would have a bonus component — a behind-the-scenes or an alternate ending and that would be distributed, at the time, exclusively on the website [Smosh.com]. So you’d watch a video on YouTube and then we’d say, go watch the bonus video on the website. It would drive a lot of traffic,” Blumberg explained.
Taking over YouTube, one channel at a time
While the duo’s YouTube page grew, they continued to expand their brand on YouTube and their personal site Smosh.com.
In 2006, Hecox and Padilla launched Smosh 2nd channel on YouTube, originally Hecox’s channel called IanH. In 2006, Smosh.com also launched Smosh Pit, an editorial blog which consists of comedy articles and photo galleries from the duo and several other bloggers.
For their second channel, they started sharing a lot of behind-the-scenes day-in-the-life videos with their fans. The videos quickly became very popular. By 2008, they were uploading one video every Friday at 1 p.m. to their original channel, while uploading weekly extras onto their second channel.
Since then, the second channel has expanded to include Anthony and Ian reading fan mail, and a side series called “Lunchtime with Smosh,” in addition to a few other weekly series that have emerged over the last several years. The channel currently has over 4.7 million subscribers.
In 2011, Smosh was acquired by digital media company Alloy Digital, which became Defy Media in late 2013 after a merger with Break Media. Today, Blumberg serves as chief content officer at Defy in addition to his continued work with Smosh.
The acquisition led to the production of more channels on YouTube including “Shut Up! Cartoons” in April 2012, which produces original animated shorts as part of the YouTube original’s program. Along with Clevver Media, they also launched Smosh Games, which includes video game commentary and “Let’s Play” videos, game playthroughs with commentary.
While privately held Defy will not disclose numbers, Business Insider estimated in 2014 that, after YouTube’s 45% cut, the two make between $US448,000 and $US4.5 million per year, according to a range of earnings estimates provided by YouTube analytics company SocialBlade. Forbes estimated the two brought in $US10 million in revenue between 2012 and 2013.
Smosh: The Movie
How does the group that has taken over YouTube get even bigger? This summer the duo are making their next big move by starring in their own film.
Co-produced by Defy and AwesomenessTV, the aptly titled “Smosh: The Movie” premiered at VidCon in Anaheim July 23 before receiving a video on demand release the following day. Variety reports the budget was around $US1 million.
The film, which sees Hecox and Padilla head to YouTube HQ to get an embarrassing video of Anthony removed from the site, features a number of other YouTube stars including Jenna Marbles, Grace Helbig, and Dominic “D-Trix” Sandoval. Directed by Alex Winter, it has been touted as a modern update to “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.“
While “Smosh: The Movie” was first announced in September 2014, it’s been in the works for years.
“The movie was something the fans always wanted and was kind of an exciting idea for us,” said Hecox. “We just never really had the opportunity to do it before, but then Awesomeness came to us and they said, ‘Hey, why don’t we work together and make this a thing?'”
For Hecox and Padilla, who are used to producing several weekly five-minute videos, the challenge of making a nearly 90-minute movie was a bit intimidating.
“Our scripts were normally about six to nine pages long and then suddenly we see this 130-page script slapped in front of us and we’re like “All right!” This is a little bit more of a task. But it was a lot of fun. It was really fun to do something different and to do something a little bit … I guess a little bit more serious,” said Hecox.
What’s next for Smosh?
Hecox and Padilla both agree “Smosh: The Movie” is just the beginning of their next chapter. After all, they’re 27. Older than most YouTube stars but hardly ready to retire.
Recently, they started a new series called “Every [Blank] Ever”, a parody series which pokes fun at everything from parties to video games. The series also features several other cast members, younger YouTubers Olivia Sui, Keith Leak, Noah Grossman, Courtney Miller, and Shayne Top.
“We’re working with them [the new cast] a lot, introducing them as part of the Smosh family, kind of creating an SNL-type cast where people aren’t coming on just to watch [Smosh], they’re coming on because they love the entire cast. Everyone has something of their own to contribute,” says Padilla.
Smosh is also working on a new series, “Part Timers,” through a partnership with YouTube as part of their originals program. It will be the duo’s first venture toward an actual sitcom, which Blumberg likens to something you would see on a streaming site.
“It is definitely a sitcom format that we haven’t done before,” explains Blumberg. “Each episode stands on its own, so it would not be unlike something that you would see on traditional TV or on Netflix or Amazon and that’s I think the next area of focus for us … working in this different environment. It is very different for us to do a large number of episodes of the same series.”
While Anthony and Ian will star, it will also feature a few others who have yet to be named.
When asked what all of this success means to them, the two 27-year-olds reflect on how YouTube helped them evolve from lip-synching teens to bonafide comedy kings.
“It’s so exciting to be in this space and [be] given this opportunity and it’s all because of the viewers. They have chosen to watch us and stay watching us for years and years and years, and hopefully they continue to do the same,” says Hecox.
“For some reason, to me, it’s the most exciting to try new things, and over the past 10 years, we’ve tried a ton of new things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t,” says Padilla. “If we would have just kept doing the same lip-synch videos from the start we would have never stayed relevant. And to me, it’s just a lot of fun to be part of this growing space.”
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