How Sacramento's YouTube darlings Smosh went Hollywood and scored big time
Carmichael natives Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla built an empire from goofy videos
Supposedly Anthony is the heartthrob and Ian is adorkable. That’s exactly how the two Sacramentans come across on a Friday evening at their Beverly Hills studio, Ian in his quirky sneakers and Anthony exposing the waistband of his Calvin Klein briefs. Anthony occasionally dons man jewelry; Ian doesn’t really work out. They’ve been friends since sixth grade and business partners since 2005. For four years they were roommates.
Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla are, in a lot of ways, like most 20-something best friends—the difference being that they’re millionaire stars of the most successful brand ever born on YouTube.
They’ve been posting short, PG-13 comedy sketches online, under the name Smosh, for 10 years. Fan art litters the walls and desks of one of their dedicated spaces inside the offices of parent company Defy Media, each homemade doll, gauzy illustration and gushing letter professing a middle- or high-schooler’s undying adoration.
Smosh’s 3,000-plus videos have accrued 7.4 billion views. The global population is estimated at 7.3 billion.
Yet Hecox and Padilla, both 27 and both from Carmichael, didn’t enter the high-rise office through a service entrance, nor did they arrive in a tinted-window SUV. “It’s very different from being a traditional TV or movie celebrity,” Hecox explains. “People see them on billboards and will be like, ’Oh, you’re that famous guy! Can I get a photo, even though I don’t care about what you do?’ For a YouTuber, people don’t know who you are unless they actively watch your videos.”
Still, many watch their videos. Smosh’s original YouTube channel currently has 20.7 million subscribers, making it the fourth most popular channel on the site. (It has reached No. 1 three times in the last decade.) The brand’s collection of channels and websites has 34.7 million subscribers total and receives 5 million views daily. Income for the Smosh brand is unlisted, but it’s estimated to bring in $3 million to $5 million a year from YouTube ad shares alone. There’s also ad revenue from their independent site Smosh.com, plus funds from sponsorships and merchandise. Forbes figured that in 2013 Smosh earned $10 million—all of this from such trivialities as a skit about a drunk guinea pig, a fake ad concerned with selling tubed ground beef and a series of ballads about Boxman, who became part cardboard box following a horrific accident, and then ran for president.
Smosh now has five thematically distinct content channels, a separate network for fans’ own content, a blog, an app (1 million downloads), a video game (2 million downloads), four music albums, a robust merchandising division and a staff of writers, directors, producers and cast members. The guys are currently producing a longer-form, serialized show under the new YouTube Originals umbrella. And at a glitzy event at Westwood’s Village Theatre on July 22, the day before the huge Anaheim YouTube conference VidCon, the megabrand will premiere its first film, SMOSH: The Movie.Bigger than Katy Perry
While other digital stars have surpassed Smosh’s YouTube subscriber numbers or make more money by retaining sole ownership of their sites, no other enterprise has built a brand as large, diversified and, if you’re under 30, recognizable. Two bozos with a webcam are now a media empire. The movie isn’t a culmination for Smosh but rather one more arm of the beast. If the old Hollywood analogy involves climbing a ladder, the new one owes more to Walt Whitman—“Smosh is large. Smosh contains multitudes.”—even if this is the only time the transcendentalist poet’s work will be used to sum up a couple of dudes who try to plunge a toilet with a doughnut. Spoiler alert: They fail.
The movie chronicles Hecox and Padilla’s efforts to remove an embarrassing video from YouTube by literally jumping into the website. Along the way, they run into other YouTube personalities, including Jenna Marbles (15 million subscribers), whose living room they land in. Hecox and Padilla play versions of themselves—their selves of four years ago, aimless 23-year-olds, but without Internet stardom.
The film was shot in 18 days. When asked if making a feature film will alienate Smosh’s DIY online fan base or discredit them as too Hollywood, Padilla responds that it wouldn’t be in the interest of producers or marketers to present them that way: “They want to capture the audience we already have.” The movie won’t be in theaters; it will be released digitally and eventually on DVD—which, believe it or not, the IRL-starved teen megafans have specifically requested.
“Yeah,” Hecox adds, “we’re not that good of actors. They don’t want us for our skill.”
In a survey commissioned by Variety last summer, 1,500 teens, ages 13 to 18, were asked a series of questions about 20 celebrities—10 traditional stars popular with teens and 10 YouTube stars. The celebs then were ranked to reflect their overall influence. Katy Perry came in ninth. The top five were all digital personalities.
Smosh was No. 1.
“That kind of validation point changes how the entire creative and advertising community views YouTube,” says Kelly Merryman, vice president of YouTube’s content partnerships. “Smosh has helped redefine how massively popular an online star can be, and that impacts the entire community of creators.”
In the last few years, more and more traditional media outlets are scrambling for digital domain. In 2013, DreamWorks bought AwesomenessTV for $33 million. Last year, it sold just a quarter of the company to Hearst Corp. for more than $81 million—meaning the company’s value grew tenfold in about a year. Also last year, Warner Bros. Entertainment invested $18 million in Machinima, an online gaming-video outlet. Disney paid $500 million for Maker Studios, which produces YouTube channels, among other services. And Viacom acquired an undisclosed minority stake in Defy Media, part of which is owned by Lionsgate, which last year formed an alliance with digital-content giant RocketJump Studios. The assumption a few years ago was that digital talent would be invading traditional media, but the reverse now seems to be true. And digital media welcomes the invasion, if only on its own terms.
“We aren’t trying to jump to traditional media,” Hecox is careful to clarify. “We just see it as another outlet, another way to expand what we’re doing already.”
Digital sketches are Hecox and Padilla’s native habitat. When Hecox joked about the duo’s poor acting skills, it was hyperbole, but not by much. The guys comedically overact, with screwball faces and boundless confidence, capitalizing on personality rather than finesse. Fortunately, a dedication to dramatic craft is not an essential ingredient in YouTube magic. In fact, it can be a detriment. “We’re not making cinema,” Smosh president Barry Blumberg explains. “We’re making content that connects with an audience.” He says the content itself “doesn’t need to be far out of reach of that audience’s capabilities”—especially since it aims to resonate “in a community where a lot of people think they’re also content creators.”
The guys don’t claim to want traditional fame anyway. “Not at all,” Hecox emphasizes. “Our situation is nice because we still have a level of anonymity.”
“Yeah, we’re kind of reserved people,” Padilla adds. “We don’t want to be the life of the party and have people staring at us all the time.”
It may be too late. Madame Tussaud’s recently announced that Padilla and Hecox will be the first American digital stars immortalized in wax. They also have appeared on the 2014 Teen Choice Awards and on TMZ Live, and have an upcoming spot on MTV’s Ridiculousness. The conclusion of last summer’s Variety survey, based on respondents’ comments, was that web stars topped the list because they are perceived as approachable, authentic and candid, whereas traditional celebrities are barricaded behind handlers and image consultants.
“Stylists?” Padilla parrots my question to make sure he heard it correctly. “Like, they pick your clothes? And haircut?”
Hecox interjects, “No, we don’t have that.”
“I think that’s silly, actually,” Padilla adds.
Hecox agrees. “Finding things to wear is what the Internet’s for.”
That said, Hecox is currently struggling with a hair decision. When he’s informed of the irony of the wax figures—that icons of a fluid and inconstant medium will be transformed into statues—he replies, “I have to change my hair soon, but now I’m like, ’Shit, my wax figure’s gonna have this hair.’”
Padilla: “You don’t have to do anything.”
Hecox: “Well, I want to, so …”
Padilla: “OK, you want to, then.”Big time in the 916
In 2005, when Hecox and Padilla were in high school in Sacramento, they Googled their names and discovered that someone had taken a video from their MySpace page—of them lip-synching the Mortal Kombat theme song, the second of only two videos they’d made at that time—and posted it to a fledgling site called YouTube, where it had already accrued a couple thousand views and hundreds of comments. The MySpace page, as well as the personal site Padilla created in 2002 as a community for their friends, was named “Smosh” after an inside joke about a buddy who mispronounced the phrase “mosh pit.” Excited about the free bandwidth on YouTube, Padilla opened a channel immediately and then polled Smosh’s MySpace fans to choose which theme song the guys would lip-synch for a third video. Pokémon won.
The now-legendary Smosh Pokémon lip-sync video, their first to blow up on YouTube, features scrawnier, even floppier-haired versions of Hecox and Padilla jumping around Padilla’s old bedroom in the Carmichael home where he grew up with his mom. Excluding a few props and sight gags, the humor is all energy and exaggerated gestures. It’s the same stuff you did with your adolescent friends, except videotaped and made public—forever.
YouTube used to have a list on its homepage of recommended videos, and at first creators could promote their own clips. “I must’ve clicked the ’recommend for front page’ button 200 times,” Padilla recalls. It hit the home page and then caught fire. So Hecox and Padilla posted more—first other lip-sync spoofs and eventually original sketches—almost all of which made the home page. With about $1,000 in donations from fans and $2,000 in T-shirt sales, the duo, who’d made everything on Padilla’s webcam, purchased a Sony Handycam and other essential equipment, and were able to leave Padilla’s bedroom. “When we first started making videos, we didn’t have a boom mic, so we had to talk really loud,” Padilla says. “And then we got a boom mic and were like, ’Wow, we’re shouting,’ and had to learn to bring it back.”
In 2007, publisher Shogakukan cited copyright infringement and forced YouTube to remove the Pokémon clip, which by then had more than 24 million views, making it the fourth most watched YouTube video at the time.
The year before, Blumberg, who’d recently left his post as president of Walt Disney Television Animation, saw a few of Smosh’s clips on YouTube. “I called them up in Sacramento and flew up there to meet a couple of weeks later.”
It wasn’t his plan, upon leaving Disney, to court and develop digital talent. “I just saw something in these two guys,” Blumberg says. “Something about them was connecting with an audience, and I really liked the name. It was my feeling that, with a little bit of polish and some traditional-media knowledge, it could be grown into something bigger.”
Some of his first advice to the guys, according to Padilla: “Don’t just do it whenever you’re bored or having fun. Create a schedule.’”
They’d just graduated from high school and had enrolled in community college. “Then the YouTube thing started taking off,” Padilla recalls, “and we were like, ’Well, we can always come back to college. We can’t always come back to YouTube.’” So they quit to make videos full-time. “It was constant,” Hecox says. Padilla adds, “We were working every single day of the week.”
In 2007, with Blumberg’s help, Smosh was chosen to be one of the first channels in the YouTube Partners program, in which ad revenues are shared between the site and its content creators. (At the time, the new partners were paid an undisclosed rate; now each channel in the program receives 55 percent of all ad sales.) It was around this time that Blumberg starting taking a cut of the growing business. “He was in it for the long haul,” Hecox says. “He wasn’t looking for any sort of quick cashout.”
Once the guys had enough income to cover the bandwidth on Smosh.com—and move out of their parents’ places, into a house they shared—they started duplicating their video library on Smosh.com, which currently houses everything that they’ve posted on YouTube in addition to bonus, exclusive material. In 2010, they built out their independent platform to include a blog populated with articles and lists, a combination of original and aggregated content—think College Humor or BuzzFeed, but for high schoolers. Alloy Digital purchased Smosh in 2011, bringing Blumberg on as digital executive vice president. (Defy Media was founded when Alloy merged with Break Media in 2013.) The following year saw the development of three new channels: Shut Up! Cartoons (an animated series), Smosh Games (video game–related content) and El Smosh (Spanish-language versions of the main-channel sketches). Each channel launched in part due to fan demand. For example, El Smosh started when Hecox and Padilla discovered a user dubbing all of their videos—and then hired him.
That channel now has 1 million subscribers.Haters and 40-somethings
Not everyone is a fan of Smosh. Two 27-year-olds who record themselves replacing the lyrics of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus with “I just got my first boner” are perhaps perfect fodder for the mocking, anonymous trolls on the notoriously vicious 4chan message boards.
In December 2013, one 4chan user posted, “Lets [sic] fake a nazi video on their youtube channel, screencap it and spread it through twitter with #WTFSmosh.” Someone did just that. A fake screengrab of the Smosh channel—titled “HITLER BRINGS BACK GOOD MEMORIES” and accompanied by an image of a Hitler-’stached Padilla next to a swastika—exploded on Twitter, along with fans’ heartfelt and shocked reactions. 4chan users also planted false reports that Hecox was accused of rape in high school and, most recently, doctored Smosh’s movie poster to include the Twin Towers, suggesting the film will be worse than 9/11. While none of their other detractors are as ferocious, there are ample hater rants lurking in the comments, as well as in reaction videos and chat rooms.
“We usually choose to ignore them because they are trying to bring you down,” Padilla says. “There is no sense in letting it affect you.”
Smosh is exceptionally childish and dumb. But teens and children are their market, and that market regenerates. When asked why teen-focused digital content is so popular in general, Hecox replies, “People have a lot of time when they’re younger. Then they start getting jobs.”
Speaking of a lot of time, there’s even an “Ianthony” genre of fan fiction that depicts erotic escapades between the two stars. It floods Smosh fan sites. Much of it is far too explicit for tween eyeballs, and most of it appears to be written by women. Occasionally, the duo posts videos of themselves performing dramatic readings of the works, not without occasionally gagging.
Superfans are no less obsessed with the duo’s real-life romantic endeavors. Padilla and fellow online personality Kalel Cullen were the reigning Internet power couple for many years, and were engaged for about 18 months before calling it quits last year. The Smosh community is still devastated. Hecox is currently single, but earlier this month Padilla posted the first Instagram shot of his new alleged girlfriend. The post’s 4,800-and-counting comments read like an audience transcript from an “After the Rose” episode of The Bachelor: “I like her so much more than his ex”; “kalel is better and always will be”; “kalel didn’t really do anything (I think) she was lazy where as I think [this one] is actually hardworking”; “Damn we missed our chance.”
Toward the end of our Friday-evening chat at the Defy offices, one of Smosh’s press representatives, also a Defy employee, confirms with Padilla that the restaurant hosting a business meeting that night has vegan options. Padilla moved here from Sacramento in March 2013 and has adjusted more readily to L.A. life than has Hecox, who took the plunge earlier this year and sheepishly says, “I’m slow to do everything, and L.A. is a different, scary place.”
Their free time is rare, but when they have it, Padilla wanders around downtown L.A. (he rents a loft in the Jewelry District), while Hecox likes exploring the secret stairs in Silver Lake (where he owns a house) and Echo Park. Hecox jokes, “My hobby would be trying not to check emails.” They occasionally go dancing with friends at the Satellite because, Hecox says, “It’s not like a really douchey club, which makes it unique.”
After eight years of running Smosh out of Sacramento, the duo realized a move was inevitable. “We had this office here, Smosh studios here, our headquarters was here,” Padilla recalls. “It made sense.”
Defy has two offices. The creative office is more casual—not foosball-table and taco-truck casual, but populated by people wearing Chuck Taylors and decorated with quirky leftover props from shoots, such as 2-foot-tall replicas of the pixelated flowers in the Super Mario games. Almost all of the 350 employees work, at varying times, on all of Defy’s brands and productions. Smosh does have a dedicated staff, although its number of employees isn’t public.
A hefty amount of production still happens in Sacramento, where Defy owns a soundstage (containing a bedroom set and a kitchen set) as well as the “Smosh house,” the actual home shared by Hecox and Padilla when they moved out of their parents’ places. After they eventually left it as well, the house was transformed into a production studio, largely to avoid major set and scenery changes.
Hecox and Padilla fly upstate once or twice each month. Otherwise, everything is shot at one of the nine studios at Defy, at YouTube-owned soundstages in town or on location. The goal is eventually to move all production to L.A.
The guys still give notes and sign off on every sketch slated for the main and second channels. They’re less involved with the cartoon and gaming channels (the latter has its own cast) but heavily engaged with the new, hush-hush YouTube Originals series—and, of course, are constantly in front of a camera for one shoot or another, not to mention making appearances at press and promotional events and at shareholder meetings.
Hecox says that if they hadn’t followed Blumberg’s advice years ago to diversify, hire a staff and outsource, “We wouldn’t be here. We’ve seen other YouTubers burn out.”
“There wasn’t even a formal scripting process 10 years ago,” Blumberg recalls. “I gave them notes on paragraphs. I helped them as writers at the beginning, with structure and how traditional comedy works. And they taught me how sketch comedy on YouTube works.” Blumberg even wrote many of Smosh’s first Facebook and Twitter posts, and still has teen Twitter followers on his personal account as a result. When asked if they were making it up as they went along, Blumberg replies, “Yes. We still are.”
Partly, Smosh is building a “family,” as the guys call their cast, staff and brand, because “If it’s you in front of the camera every day, that’s taxing,” Padilla says. “Especially if you want to keep doing this at 40. We might be working more behind the camera by then.”
When Hecox and Padilla turn 40, in 2028, teens will no doubt still laugh at talking boobs. But will Smosh still be making videos about them? The brand’s sketches certainly are more adult now than they were 10 years ago. “I just write what I think is funny,” Hecox says. “I don’t care who watches it.”
Even if the guys’ sensibilities outgrow their market—or vice versa—the Smosh brand might be diversified enough to adapt. Still, all of its digital bits and bytes are as fleeting as humor itself. Smosh is an empire built on ephemerality. What if it all disappears?
“I’ll take my money and go live on an island,” Padilla adds.
“I’ll become a hermit,” Hecox jokes. “I’ll go up into the mountains and just hunt rabbit for the rest of my life.”
And nothing will remain of Smosh. Except those wax figures.