Let’s say that Disney does buy Maker Studios, the giant YouTube network. What happens next?
Yes, it’s still possible that the deal I told you about last week, which would value Maker at more than $500 million, could fall through. But some plugged-in people tell me that the deal is pretty advanced at this point. Perhaps Disney’s board, which hosted its annual shareholder meeting in Portland today, has already given the go-ahead.
So, again: If the deal goes through, what will Disney do with Maker?
The big picture is easy. Disney = kids and teens. And YouTube = kids and teens, and Maker says it generates 5.5 billion views a month, almost all of them on YouTube. So there’s some very obvious alignment there.
Beyond that, here are a couple different options for Disney, which aren’t mutually exclusive:
Use Maker/YouTube as a distribution hub for Disney stuff. This might be the clumsiest, least successful way to approach Maker. Because while some of Maker’s audience might be interested in “Frozen” or “Cars” or its Marvel franchises, they already know where to find all of those things — and they can already find them on YouTube when they want (see this “Frozen” video, now at 145 million views).
Instead, Maker has found an audience that comes to it for stuff they’re not getting elsewhere, like Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, a Swedish twenty-something who giggles while he plays video games.
Here’s a clip with 44 million views. (Nope, it’s not for me, either.)
PewDiePie is the biggest star on YouTube, and he might very well be happy to do clips with some of “The Avengers” cast (or whatever). But again: “The Avengers” (or whatever) are the kind of giant Disney properties that don’t need help from YouTube. There’s more risk than reward in jamming them in.
Use Maker/YouTube as a farm team for talent that wants to migrate into “real” media. This is a more tried and true way of approaching Web talent, and has some intrinsic logic to it: Disney can’t scour the earth looking for the next PewDiePie, but when he or she does pop up, it would be happy to offer a deal. And the next PewDiePie might be more interested in signing with Maker if there’s a Disney pipeline there.
You can argue against this strategy, too. For starters, if Disney wants to use Maker as a farm team, it doesn’t need to buy Maker — it can just watch Maker, and all of the other big YouTube channels, then pluck the people it wants.
Some of the big YouTube networks will try to protect their talent with deals that lock up their intellectual property. But my hunch is that lots of YouTube stars will be happy to leave their YouTube personas and IP behind them in return for a Disney deal — similar to the way Dwayne Johnson is no longer dependent on “The Rock” brand that he started out under when he was a pro wrestler.
A flip side of that concern: What if it turns out that YouTube stars aren’t really stars unless they’re on YouTube, with constant access to their fans and the feedback loop that generates?
Justin Bieber got big on YouTube, and then really, really big after that. But so far he’s the exception: Most YouTubers — and “native” digital stars, period — have fared best when they’ve stayed put.
Leave Maker more or less on its own. People familiar with the company say Maker is losing money, so it might be very happy to get the help Disney has to offer with sales and other behind-the-scenes services. But beyond that, Disney may choose to let Maker run as a standalone unit and hope that it ends up turning into something really big.
Like everyone else who is investing in digital video, Maker’s backers like to argue that we’re replaying the early ’80s, when cable networks were starting out. This is very flattering for the Web guys, because it implies that they are the next ESPNs and MTVs.
The counter to that is that the cable networks grew in a world with constrained distribution, and that there’s no way to replicate that now. The instant access of the digital world lets you attract giant audiences overnight — but it also means those eyeballs can flit away, lured by the next Flappy Bird.
Still, if you’re Disney, and you’re in the business of betting lots of money on TV shows and movies that sometimes hit — $1 billion and counting for “Frozen” — and often don’t — $200 million down the drain for “John Carter,” and then again for “The Lone Ranger” — you might be reasonably comfortable guessing that something really big is going to come out of YouTube, and that that something is going to compete for the same eyeballs Disney treasures.
And that thinking may help convince them to write a big check, and then, um, let it go. At least a bit.