"It’s not often that we go out and hire a 20-year veteran of the online media world. Those people don’t exist," Burnie Burns says about the way Rooster Teeth, the production company he cofounded in 2003, recruits new talent. Burns, who transitioned from CEO to creative director of the company in late 2012, talks a lot about the speculative elder statesmen of web-based entertainment, but the truth is, he—and cofounder Matt Hullum, who took over the CEO role from Burns—are pretty much it.
Burns and Hullum founded Rooster Teeth in 2002 and quickly established the company as a player in the online video space before there was really an online video space—it was three years before YouTube even launched. The company quickly grew on the back of an animated web series called Red vs. Blue, based on XBox game Halo. It was one of the first examples of machinima (derived from machine and cinema—animated film created from video game graphics engines) to gain an audience beyond hard-core gamers. The partners didn’t invent the genre, but they were pioneers of the art form.
In the nerd fantasy that is the podcast room at Rooster Teeth’s South Austin headquarters (there are 3-D-printed toys on a table, and Captain America’s shield rests against the wall), Burns sits on a couch and talks about the fact that, when it comes to web-based entertainment, Red vs. Blue is the longest-running series on the Internet by some margin.
"When we started doing this stuff, we had to educate people. If you watch the first few videos of Red vs. Blue, it calls itself out as a web-series—‘This one is out, and there’s gonna be another one next week,’ " says Burns, who, with his curly hair, light beard, and black glasses channels Seth Rogen. "It was really important, because there was nothing really like that at the time. Now, it’s kind of refreshing that we can put stuff out, and people understand the concept of a web series. You’re not just looking at a dancing baby, or something like that."
Ten seasons in, the darkly comic Red vs. Blue has outlasted most properties—whether broadcast or digital—and it’s still going strong. Elijah Wood joined the cast last year; the 11th season will premiere in June; the Rooster Teeth YouTube channel, which the series anchors, has over 5 million subscribers and averages a billion views per year. The company’s new anime-style series, RWBY, debuts in July. Burns and Hullum may have never seen themselves as elder statesmen when they helped create the web-series model, but they’ve grown into the role nicely. Here are some things they learned about how to stay on the bleeding edge of a medium that you helped pioneer.
Rooster Teeth has millions of subscribers on YouTube, and over a quarter a million followers on both Facebook and Twitter—and the value they place on those interactions with their fans is minimal. That’s intentional, Burns says, because as veterans of the social networking world, they’ve learned that platforms come and go.
"The term viral video did not exist," Hullum says of the days when Rooster Teeth started, but the company’s first video—a 2003 parody of the "Mac switch" ad campaign, aimed at gamers—managed to go viral anyway. They did it thanks to the support of Penny Arcade, Slashdot, and Fark, which are not exactly star-making sites 10 years later. "The sites you’d mention today would probably be different sites," Burns says.
Learning firsthand the way trends change has kept Rooster Teeth from relying too heavily on any particular social networking platform. "We’ve always understood that you have to have your corner of the Internet," Burns explains. "That’s our dot-com site. No matter what the geography of the Internet looks like, people always know where they’re going to find us. We talk about things like Facebook and YouTube and Twitter today, but you only have to go back three or four years and we’d have been talking about MySpace. If we’d spent all of our efforts getting 2 million friends on MySpace, we’d have just started over again a generation later."
These days, every brand wants to have a community of fans and users. Sprite wants a community of Sprite drinkers. Adidas wants a community of Adidas wearers. A community of enthusiasts who’ll evangelize your product is important, but you can’t create one from the top down. That’s something Rooster Teeth takes into account when they develop every level of their own social networking platforms on RoosterTeeth.com.
"When we were hiring for our head of social media and community manager, we looked at our website," Burns explains, "And the highest-ranking member of the site, on our social game, was Barbara Dunkelman. She’d been there for six years. That is who the community had identified as the head of the community, so she should be our community manager."
Incorporating Dunkelman into that role meant for an smooth transition—there was no training time, and longtime users of the site didn’t feel as though they’d hired a carpetbagger to come in and mess with what was already an effective system. "Essentially the audience hired her," Hullum says.
When Burns stepped down as CEO to take on the role of Creative Director, it wasn’t an easy decision—but knowing when it’s time for the company to change is crucial, he says, both from a business and a creative standpoint.
"I had to take a hard look and say, ‘Is the guy who took us from one person to 50 people the guy who can take us from 50 people to a thousand?’" Burns recalls. "I had to realize that no, it probably isn’t the same person. We’ve had explosive growth since Matt’s taken over."
The growth in the size of the company is important, but just as important in its evolution is recognizing when to take creative risks. Most recently, that’s come in the form of the company’s newest series—set to debut in early July, at the company’s RTX Convention—which steps away from the machinima animation that’s largely defined Rooster Teeth in favor of a pure manga feel. RWBY, created by Red vs. Blue lead animator Monty Oum, is a risk that the company might not have taken in years past.
"We’re pretty honest about stuff. When you look at an artist like Monty, if he gets to the end of his fourth or fifth season of working on Red vs. Blue, he’s either going to get burned out on doing that stuff, or he’s going to want to go out and do something on his own," Burns says. "We really love Monty, we know the audience loves Monty, so why not have him do that here?"
"One of our most popular shows is a show called Rage Quit. That was a video we saw on Reddit. I was watching videos, and I saw this kid in Jersey yelling at his screen as he chased orbs in Crackdown. I thought it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Within a week, he was working for us," Burns says.
Online video is highly competitive—everyone is seeking the same attention from largely the same sources, and that’s especially true when the subject is a niche market like funny, action-based videos about gaming. One way Rooster Teeth has learned to stay relevant is to find the creators who are doing the sort of thing that they do well and bring them into the fold.
"It’s such a wild, wooly world out there in online video," says Hullum. "We don’t really think of competition in that capacity." He describes an employee of the company they found through videos he’d made that were similar to the ones Rooster Teeth makes. "We could have been, like, Oh, this guy’s trying to do what we’re doing," he says in a mock-disappointed voice. "Instead, we said, Oh, this guy’s doing cool stuff like we do! Let’s talk to him! And he’s a great guy to have on the team."
[Image: Flickr user Nick Escobar]