Pioneering a Media Evolution
Written by Briana Loëb
Photos by Leslie Hodge
Rooster Teeth is a local entertainment and media company that creates streaming series, feature films, animated series, comedy shorts, gaming videos, reality shows, podcasts, video games, live events and merchandise. The empire has amassed a vast global reach with more than 38 million YouTube subscribers across its network, has inspired countless other web creators, innovated many styles of production, and fostered a huge, worldwide community of fans. And only a small fraction of Austinites know that they’re here, in our very town.
It all started on April 1st, 2003 in a spare bedroom in Buda, Texas, when Burnie Burns had an Xbox and a talent for entertainment.
Burnie was an independent filmmaker, very inspired by Robert Rodriquez. He was the president of a telecom company called teleNetwork Partners, providing helpdesk services to different telephone companies nationwide. Most entrepreneurs will refer to their previous jobs with some disgruntlement, but Burnie loved his job, and was really happy. He would come home from work and fiddle around with filmmaking, as a personal hobby. Two different groups of friends, filmmakers Matt Hullum and Joel Heyman, and Burnie’s tech friends, Geoff Ramsey and Gus Sorola, made shows and content during a period of recent history before YouTube existed.
It might be hard to remember a time before YouTube existed, a time where the Internet wasn’t saturated with video content, or even a period where you couldn’t watch a video in a web browser. You had to download a file and play it in a separate player (like QuickTime, Windows Media Player, or DivX), but that time wasn’t so long ago. “We didn’t even know how viral our work was going until press organizations started to call us and ask, ‘Can we take your video and put it on the CD that they mount to the cover of the magazine?’ That's how long ago it was.”
Maybe this was only an inkling of an indication of what was to come for Rooster Teeth. When they put up the first episode of Red vs Blue, an award-winning comedy series that utilizes video game graphics and footage from multiplayer versions of Halo and voice-over dialogue, it got linked all over the web. When the second episode went up, it brought down the entire internet for Burnie’s building. Somewhere around 250,000 had watched it, and within a month, a million people were watching each week.
“YouTube lets you check a box and they can put a pre-roll ad on your video that allows you to monetize it. But back when we began, there was no YouTube, and there were no pre-roll ads. We couldn’t really monetize that video,” Burnie recalls. “YouTube also provides a service that most people don’t think about; they host and serve all of these videos, which is very expensive. We had a hosting facility that we were contracting with, and we'd get charged for every megabyte that was downloaded. We got a bill for the first month for $13,000 to serve all the video that month.”
So right out of the gate, they faced a huge challenge. People clearly wanted to watch the show, but how could they support the venture? “We learned that reaching out to the audience would be the best way to get support. They were ready to help keep the show going.” The currency of the internet at the time was T-shirts, so they started creating merchandise and offering service subscriptions.
“I like to study things,” says Burnie. “I love to observe how people utilize online resources, and I study how they interact. So we would spend all week after our day jobs producing a Red vs. Blue video. We’d write it on Monday, record audio on Tuesday, edit audio on Wednesday, record and edit the video on Thursday, and publish it on Friday. After hours and hours of production, you’re waiting for people to watch it. Seeing the downloads and watching for that first comment, you’re thinking ‘What do they think about it?’ And after all of that anticipation, the first comment rolls in, and it’s just somebody saying ‘First.’ It’s the most common thing on the internet.”
Sure enough, if there’s a blank box, people want to be the first person to write in it. It’s a phenomenon all over the web. “It was very frustrating. We’d delete those comments, and there’d be four people all saying ‘first, first, first, first.’ But then we realized that this is the audience telling us what they value. They value being early; it’s important. They want to stake a claim. In a way, they become tastemakers and show they were there before everyone else.”
So that’s what they based the subscription service on, allowing followers to have early access to the show. Before sharing and piracy became a huge deal, they would release an episode on Friday for paying members, on the weekend for non-paying registered members, and on Monday they could release it to the general public. Not only was it an effective model, it also spread out the download frequency, which helped with bandwidth.
“As soon as we released the sponsorship model, it was integrated with a PayPal interface bit, and it would send me an email and let me know when someone signed up. I thought it would be funny to put a little cash register sound effect on the incoming emails, so we would get a ‘cha-ching’ when we got a new subscriber. So I turned it on and went to lunch and thought ‘I’ll see how it does when I come back.’ Ten minutes later, I get a call from one my friends at work saying ‘You’ve got to shut off your laptop.’ So I asked why, and he just held the phone up to my computer, and it couldn’t even finish making the ‘cha-ching’ noise, it’s going ‘ch-ch-cha-cha ching, cha-ching, cha-cha-ch-cha-ching-ching,’ because they’re coming in so fast. That was a really cool moment.”
That was also the moment when Burnie realized that he might have to make a choice between his full-time job and this project he had started at home. It might be easy to assume this was an obvious path, but it was accompanied by natural fear. “This really took off, but entertainment can be very fickle. When you have a hit, you have to realize how rare it is and try to service it as best as you can. But there’s still always this feeling that it can go away instantly, in a moment’s notice.”
In the media industry, things can die off as soon as quickly as they explode, and getting discovered is even more daunting. “YouTube publishes a statistic regularly that shows how many hours of footage are uploaded to the platform every minute, and as of now, it’s about 400 hours a minute. That means, if you wanted to watch every video on YouTube, you would fall three weeks behind, every minute. It’s totally impossible to watch everything on YouTube. In that environment where there is a huge noise floor, how do you find a way through to people? For new creators, it’s a tough question, but we’ve been doing it now for 15 years and still have to reinvent ways to find people who are trying to discover content.”
So when he was questioning if he should leave his job at a telecom company and make the leap, the owner of the company put him on a sabbatical. “He was so gracious,” says Burnie. “I’d learned so much, and there aren’t many business owners who would do that.”
And that wasn’t the only piece of fortune that Burnie found falling into place. Halo is a first-person shooter video game franchise that is a subsidiary of Microsoft Studios. It is military science fiction genre series of games that been met with record-breaking success and popularity. “I somehow convinced Microsoft to loan us their multi-billion-dollar franchise to make funny internet videos,” says Burnie. “We used the video game Halo to make the show, and it was popular and great, but once we started to monetize it and sell DVDs and T-shirts, the phone rang. Microsoft wanted to meet with us.” So Microsoft, Rooster Teeth, and the game developers, sat down for a meeting. “They told us they were a company that values innovation. They said ‘We don’t understand it, but people seem to like it, so let’s see where this goes.’ And it’s grown into a 15-year partnership. Anyone could write how that story should have ended. They might have said ‘this is cute, cut it out,’ and six weeks later, it would be a thing nobody remembers.”
So Burnie Burns took the profits from each show and tried to make it a bit bigger, and then took the profits from that success and invest it to even a bit bigger, and so on, hit after hit. They attended a bunch of conventions, like Comic-Con and PAX, and finally decided to try their own event. “We thought we’d just throw a big party for about 200 people. Well, the ticket sales went live, and the fans broke the cart on the website. Instead of selling 200 tickets, we sold 650.” Finally, Burnie realized that the audience wasn’t going to just evaporate overnight. Of course, they weren’t prepared to accommodate so many people, but it gave them the confidence to scale the event very quickly each year. Now RTX is held in three cities (Austin, Sydney, and London) and over 63,000 people attended the Austin RTX Convention in Summer of 2017.
Rooster Teeth might have surpassed everyone’s wildest dreams, and for a while there, Burnie went through a period of what he describes as “holding on for dear life.” That being said, they have made a lot of strategic moves in order to maintain growth in a turbulent industry. “We’ve been careful to not go all-in on the fads of the time. We’ve learned the ebb and flow.” Another smart move was to commit to a .com website. “I know it’s a little bit antiquated, but no matter how much things change, our fans can know exactly where to find us. All of our social media is a network of spokes with RoosterTeeth.com in the center.” And of course, there’s the name. Most YouTubers have channels named after the featured person or host. “I was 29 when I started it,” said Burnie. “I thought ‘in three years, nobody will watch a 29-year-old guy talk and play video games,’ so I made sure not to name the company or our hit show after myself. I wanted to communicate to people that there is still more content coming.”
Rooster Teeth is an international empire. But one thing we love is that it is also an Austin company, and will remain that way. “This is our home. We love it here. It’s great. We’re not going to be picking up and moving from Austin anytime soon.”
That being said, they didn’t become integrated with the Austin community instantly. “After 11 years of operating in Austin, we started our convention, RTX, and hotels began to fill up with reservations. Suddenly the City of Austin became aware of us and asked ‘Who are you guys? What do you do?’ even though we’ve been here for over a decade. You can really build these massive, global audiences, distribute to everybody in the world, and nobody in Austin knows we were here.”
What advice does Burnie Burns have for internet creators out there? “Be genuine, and make a video that you would want to watch. There are people who can say that they’ve found a popular format or identified a lucrative vertical, or they might say ‘hey, cooking videos are great, I’ll do that,’ but if you’re not into cooking videos, you’re going to make a lousy cooking video.
“And, of course, be consistent. You can’t stop consistently putting out content, because you never know what is going to be the thing that just blows up and helps you get discovered. People still talk to me out on the streets about Red vs. Blue.”
“This is a hobby that turned into a career,” says Burnie. “There are layers of generational talent here. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t have an appreciation for how amazing this is, working in my passion.”
What’s next for Rooster Teeth? The company just announced the premiere date for Lazer Team 2, the sequel to their first feature film Lazer Team, a hugely popular sci-fi comedy that Rooster Teeth produced in 2015. Lazer Team 2 will premiere on November 22nd on YouTube Red , with limited theatrical screenings the week before starting November 13th.
Rooster Teeth is truly pioneering the future of media. Burnie’s story is far from over, and the footprint that he has had on many platforms of the internet will only continue to grow. And to think, it all began as a hobby.
To subscribe to Rooster Teeth or become a member of their online community, visit www.RoosterTeeth.com