Most people spend their time in high school trying to fit in. Not Corey Vidal. The St. Catharines, ON native spent most of his high school career watching Star Wars, reading books about Star Wars, and filming his own short videos celebrating the movie franchise while dreaming about one day becoming a film director. He probably would have stayed a hobby filmmaker and small-town wedding videographer if not for one important event in 2005: the launch of YouTube.
In the 10 years since uploading his first short film for his friends, Vidal has amassed over 100 million views on his videos, with over 225,000 subscribers on his main YouTube channel. His first real hit was an a cappella tribute to Star Wars composer John Williams, which has over 20 million views to date, and netted him $60,000 in one month alone.
“I was sleeping and a friend called me and said “you need to wake up, you need to run to a computer you’re on the front page of YouTube,” Vidal said in an interview while in Squamish, BC for a conference last week. “That day the video got over a million views just in that 24-hour period.”
In addition to his YouTube short films, this week Vidal will debut his first feature-length documentary, Vlogumentary, at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film, executive produced by Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock, is about a subject Corey knows all too well: the cult of YouTube, and the rise of its stars over the past 10 years.
Since Vidal has unlocked the secret to building a following on YouTube, he’s naturally a target of curiosity from brands, marketers, and corporate folks looking to replicate his viral success, or to reach his Millennial audience. He’s an “influencer” who has been tapped by brands like Telus, who pays his phone bill, and Tim Hortons, who made him one of their #Timfluencers, and gave him an unlimited gift card in exchange for attending brand events and sharing content online. He’s worked with brands including Disney, LG, and Coca-Cola, both on creating content for their channels, and incorporating their products into his videos, which typically get at least 100,000 views. But he’s quick to point out that he identifies as an artist, a creator, and a filmmaker – not a business guy. He’s more comfortable in a t-shirt than corporate attire, and feels more at home with his YouTube community than networking or giving talks to marketers and brands about how to find success with their videos. It’s a fine balance between engaging the brands who hire him to partner on content and produce their videos, and staying in the tight YouTube community that already embraces him, and where he’s most comfortable.
Vidal left his job as a wedding videographer and became a full-time YouTuber in 2008, filming several short films for his main channel every year, and posting a daily vlog. In 2011 he started his own video production company, ApprenticeA, which now produces all the videos on his channels, in addition to producing videos for other brands.
In 2013 he founded Buffer Festival, a YouTube film festival modelled after TIFF that debuts premium content from YouTube stars in Toronto theatres every October. Now in its fourth year, the event sold 10,000 tickets in 2015, and has attracted hundreds of YouTube celebrities from around the world.
In the early days of YouTube people would ask Vidal what his plan was if the platform were to all of a sudden disappear – a question he doesn’t get asked as much anymore, since YouTube has become one of the most powerful content platforms on the planet. Other YouTube stars parlay their following into product endorsement deals, spokesperson opportunities (Gigi Gorgeous is in ads for Pantene), and in the case of YouTubers like Bethany Mota, stints on reality shows like Dancing With the Stars. While Vidal doesn’t want “YouTube Celebrity” to be his legacy, it’s clear when talking to him that there’s no separating him from the platform. He may have parlayed his success on YouTube into a career as a small business owner, with over a dozen people working for him, but he identifies as a YouTuber first.
“One of the biggest takeaways that I would share with people is I regularly get asked ‘what do I want past YouTube,’ with a lot of people wondering if that’s a springboard to something else. I’ve used YouTube to create a number of businesses, I am an entrepreneur, but all of those businesses are YouTube-related and at the end of the day YouTube and being a YouTuber is what my passion is. I’m not trying to go be a filmmaker, or go have a TV show, and I’ve had opportunities to do those things and they don’t interest me. YouTube is the final goal.”
Vidal has also become one of only a few hundred uber-celebrities on YouTube, joining other Canadians like “Superwoman” Lilly Singh and transgender vlogger Gigi Gorgeous, and global YouTube stars like Shay Carl, who bring in millions in revenue and collectively have tens of millions of hyper-dedicated young fans.
Perhaps the biggest marker of his success – at least when considering Vidal’s roots brandishing a homemade lightsaber in amateur short films – is the fact that he’s been hired by Disney to create content around the Star Wars franchise, including a “Clash at the Cantina” video filmed on the set of the new film, and interviews with his film heroes including Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill on the red carpet. He also attended the world premiere of Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens in December, and has a YouTube video from the red carpet to prove it.
YouTube is also where his fans are. Vidal’s audience, which he says falls mostly into the coveted 18-34 audience and is split 50/50 male/female, can be fanatical. Once a year he gets the full celebrity treatment at video conference VidCon, described as the Comic-Con for YouTube stars. Two years ago at VidCon, he stepped outside his hotel to walk across the street to sit on an industry panel, and he was mobbed to the point that his hotel lobby had to shut down for two hours, and he missed his speaking slot. Since then he’s not allowed to leave the hotel unaccompanied – no walking around the trade show floor, no interacting with fans outside of official functions. For that event every year, he is the A-List celebrity of the YouTube world, mobbed by fans who watch his videos, and in many cases have grown up with him for the past 10 years. Even when he’s not at VidCon, he still gets recognized. Last week he was in LA putting the finishing touches on his documentary, and he flew into Vancouver for the Canadian Internet Marketing Conference, where he spoke on a panel about the future of influencer marketing. He was recognized by two fans, one who approached him in person at the airport, and one who tweeted from afar.
When he debuts at Tribeca on Wednesday, Vidal will be crossing over from the YouTube world to Hollywood, a place he already spends time working on content. While standing next to actors Charlize Theron, Jessica Chastain, and Chris Hemsworth at an event for The Huntsman sequel recently in LA, there was no question who the celebrities were. But if it were another day, on another red carpet, Vidal would be the clear star: a new celebrity for a new generation, and a stark reminder of the power of YouTube to transform people’s lives.