It’s a cloudy summer morning in Oregon wine country, and Paige McKenzie is taking a selfie that 18,000 people will see.
With a FlipCam trained on herself, McKenzie—in red shorts, a gray zip-up hoodie and lensless tortoiseshell frames—runs screeching into her parents’ blush-walled bedroom. “I’m home alone, I’m home alone, I’m alone!” the 20-year-old squeals. She sets the camcorder on a tripod and jumps onto the floral bedspread. On a nightstand by a heart-shaped headboard is a tall stack of books: romance, vampire fiction and a fat paperback titled Self-Management for Actors: Getting Down to (Show) Business.
“Mom is out of town,” McKenzie yips into the camera, detailing how she plans to blast music and bake all weekend. Her delivery is undeniably millennial: jagged pitch, breakneck pace, sentences completed not with terminal punctuation but with “anywho” or “so yeah!” or a staccato, semi-maniacal “ha! ha! ha!”
Then, behind her, a small hand reaches out of the closet, claws the sliding door and quietly glides it shut. None of which McKenzie sees.
“Bye guys!” McKenzie says. Her face inches from the camera, she ends the video with her signature catchphrase: “Blah!”
Her mother, Mercedes Rose, dashes into the bedroom and flashes a thumbs-up. Sadie, McKenzie’s 11-year-old sister, emerges from the closet, grinning. The three replay the video on the tiny FlipCam screen, approvingly. “Look at Sadie’s hand!” Rose says. “So obvious! I love it.”
This two-minute video is one of six McKenzie will record in an hour. On her YouTube series, The Haunting of Sunshine Girl, she plays an excitable teenager named Sunshine who documents paranormal activity. All told, the channel has 80 million page views.
That’s a lot of traffic. Sure, it’s nothing compared to the 2 billion for “Gangnam Style.” But it does make McKenzie, who lives in rural Oregon, about an hour outside Portland, among the biggest YouTube stars in the Pacific Northwest. Consider this: She receives 7 million hits a month for a Blair Witch knockoff. That is one-third the traffic on OregonLive.com, which is powered by a newsroom of about 100.
And McKenzie and her mother hope it’s just the start.
“I believe the world needs Sunshine,” Rose says. “She’s a strong role model who chases ghosts, not boys. I think she’s the next Jennifer Lawrence.”
Earlier this year, McKenzie caught the eye of the Weinstein Company. In early May, the film studio announced it would turn Sunshine Girl into a book series and movie franchise, with McKenzie to star. The first book is due out March 2015, with a second to follow soon after. The movie contracts have yet to be inked.
The deal is the result of a years-long, highly calculated strategy by McKenzie, Rose and co-producer Nick Hagen, who’ve always seen YouTube as an avenue to Hollywood. The series’ very premise—pretty teenage girl meets ghost—was designed for maximum clicks.
“The Weinstein deal is bigger than we ever could have dreamed,” Rose says. “It’s the pinnacle. But the idea was always that we would get our numbers so big that Hollywood would find a way to embrace this sort of storytelling and pay us for it.”
Will it work? That’s an open question, and there are skeptics. But it’s a path to celebrity that would not have been possible until recently, and it comes with its own set of risks. If Sunshine Girl flops—or if the movie deal never materializes—McKenzie will have spent four years of her life providing free entertainment, with little to show for it besides Facebook messages from adoring teenage fans, thousands of enraged YouTube comments and 35 hours of amateurish, disposable content.
McKenzie is sure she’ll be big. “I was thinking like Kirsten Dunst,” she says. “But then her career kinda went down. I don’t want my career to ever go down.”
While McKenzie is the star and Rose the ambitious mother behind the scenes, the creator is really Hagen, a 35-year-old father of three who lives in Ridgefield, Wash. After dropping out of his college horticulture program, Hagen worked in big-box retail and made a few films that never found distribution—a melodrama about a man who sees a girl die in the woods, a cheesy slasher flick about young women trapped in a cabin. “They weren’t very good,” he admits.
Four years ago, Hagen was doing marketing for a screenprinting supply company with a strong YouTube presence. He’d noticed, too, that musicians were generating massive traffic on the site. So in October 2010, he ran a reverse search on YouTube to determine what else viewers were looking for.
The No. 1 search term? “Lil Wayne.”
No. 2? “Ghost.”
That struck Hagen, a fan of shows like Unsolved Mysteries and The X-Files. He imagined a YouTube series about a girl named Sunshine who’s moved with her single mom from sunny Texas to the dreary Pacific Northwest, where—as Twin Peaks and Twilight have shown viewers—things get freaky. He emailed Rose, an actress he knew from previous film projects, to ask if she and her daughter were interested.
Rose, 42, leapt immediately. A native Oregonian—she graduated from Milwaukie High School, where she starred as a man-poisoning spinster in Arsenic and Old Lace—Rose had appeared in local indie films, acted in Izzy’s commercials and done voice-over work for Nintendo and Intel. McKenzie, then 16, was acting in community theater. She’d given up Mervyn’s and Fred Meyer modeling gigs, because at 5-foot-1, she didn’t meet the minimum height requirement.
It wasn’t as if YouTube lacked ghost videos. But they tended to star middle-aged bald men alone in their apartments, not attractive young girls in their bedrooms. “Nobody was taking this idea of a young girl, which is what people are looking for on YouTube, and combining it with ghosts,” says Rose, a fair-skinned redhead with an emphatic way of speaking. “We were like, there’s no reason this shouldn’t work. It has all the things that people really care about.”
In late 2010, The Haunting of Sunshine Girl was born. The aesthetic was intentionally raw, with most of the videos filmed on a consumer-grade FlipCam. They were unscripted, and production value was low: no fancy special effects or lighting or makeup, which would detract from the sense of reality. Such an approach allowed the team to shoot up to 10 videos a day and keep the channel flooded with fresh content, up to three or four new videos a week—to “feed the beast that is YouTube,” Hagen says. Today, the channel has more than 1,000 videos.
Even Hagen concedes many of the videos are pedestrian. “When I started the channel, I knew I was taking a few steps backward as a filmmaker,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t making quality stuff anymore. It’s mostly disposable. With some of the random videos, I have a hard time sitting through them to get them online.”
The team learned to play by the rules of YouTube. That meant search-engine optimization: carefully choosing keywords and tags—“ghost,” “haunted,” “paranormal,” “scary”—to boost their videos’ hits. “We hit 100,000 views within weeks,” Hagen says, “and that was without promoting the channel to our friends or family or anybody. It was all just natural searches on YouTube.”
Hagen designed eye-catching thumbnails featuring McKenzie’s face, or overlaid with red circles and arrows to direct viewers’ attention to the spectral activity. One of the earliest hits was titled “SCARY! DON’T WATCH! Ghost Child caught on tape.” The thumbnail is a bloody handprint, with “HELP ME” scrawled above. (That February 2011 video, in which ghosts lock Sunshine in a bathroom, has more than 2 million views.)
Since 2011, Sunshine Girl has been a member of YouTube’s partner program, which allows content creators to share revenue from ads sold on their videos—pop-up banners, pre-roll ads and so on. Hagen says the channel now makes $4,000 to $6,000 a month. They recently earned $500 from a Japanese television show that compiles video clips from across the Internet. Product placement—they’ve approached Ford, Vitamin Water and Pendleton Woolen Mills—has never panned out.
Then again, YouTube was always a means to an end.
“I knew that if we built up our numbers, people in L.A. would have to pay attention to us,” Hagen says. “The goal had always been to get a lot of subscribers and views, and YouTube was the place with the biggest audience.”
In her first video, made in December 2010, McKenzie twiddles her hands and tugs at her sleeves as she describes her plan to document the “creepy sketch stuff” at her new house. She has a way of speaking with her mouth in a perpetual smile—much like a fidgety, aggressively positive Lonelygirl15, one of YouTube’s earliest video bloggers and a clear precursor to Sunshine.
McKenzie likes to say
Sunshine is 95 percent her, but off-camera, she’s less bubbly and more
sarcastic than her character. Notably, she doesn’t like horror
movies—she’d rather watch rom-coms, read Neil Gaiman or make tattooed
cloth dolls to sell on her Etsy shop, which she plugs in her videos.
McKenzie doesn’t spend much time with friends her own age, but she’s extremely close with her mother. They share frequent high-fives and a Diet Coke habit, and Rose likes to rib her daughter about her Pinterest obsession and her crush on Tom Felton, the blond British actor best known for playing Draco Malfoy. They’re fond of saying they complete each other’s sentences, but it’s more that McKenzie has a tendency to repeat her mother’s phrases. Friday is “Bride Night”: The two eat apples with peanut butter while watching Say Yes to the Dress and I Found the Gown.
“I have really bad social anxiety,” says McKenzie, picking at a gluten-free cinnamon roll—she has celiac disease—at New Cascadia bakery in Southeast Portland. “Doing anything alone really bothers me. Interviews on national television are cool, but going to the grocery store and having to ask somebody where something is, I break out in hives.”
She has no problem interacting with her fans, though, which is another key to Sunshine Girl’s strategy. It’s one thing to show up in search results; it’s another for viewers to stick around long enough to share videos and subscribe to the channel. To make that happen, McKenzie has made herself into a brand that extends beyond YouTube. Her viewers—58 percent female and most between the ages of 13 and 24—aren’t just subscribing to the story of Sunshine Girl; they’re subscribing to a personality. Her Instagram is a sea of selfies, and on Vine she posts looping videos of puppies and pancakes. She retweets her fans feverishly. On YouTube, she often asks viewers to tweet at her, whether theories about the ghosts in her house or what color she should paint her nails. She estimates she responds to 100 Facebook messages a day.
Such a social-media presence is nearly a full-time job. When McKenzie isn’t shooting a paranormal video, she’s chronicling other exploits—going crabbing, playing softball, visiting the Oregon Zoo for Packy’s birthday—or filming shout-outs to her viewers.
“What’s happening in today’s social-media explosion is that the audience feels a part of the ride,” says Fullscreen’s Shapiro. “The audience feels like they’ve helped create the success. And to a certain extent, they have.”
That’s the case for Trip George, a 15-year-old fan in Houston who’s had an email relationship with McKenzie for a year and has even contributed some of his own paranormal videos to the channel. “Other YouTubers don’t interact as much with their subscribers,” George says. “She got my email and actually read it. I was really surprised. I admire her. She didn’t start out with much, but she built a fan base and is making her own dreams come true.”
After wrapping the video in her parents’ bedroom on that overcast summer morning, McKenzie runs upstairs to shoot five more. The YouTube star still lives at home, in a lavender bedroom decorated with heart-shaped lights, ceramic elephants and framed photos of Audrey Hepburn. The family doesn’t like to reveal details about where they live since McKenzie has overzealous fans.
“She has a whole group of 30-year-old men that really think they have a chance with her,” Rose says. “It’s the weirdest thing ever. When she’s Jennifer Lawrence, I can pay to protect her. But she’s not. She’s a YouTube star.”
Their town is about an hour outside of Portland, far enough from the city that suburban strip malls give way to vineyards and dilapidated barns. The family home, a farmhouse built in 1911 and extensively remodeled, has a grandmotherly feel—all mauves and lilacs, with floral wreaths and gauzy paintings of angels hanging on the walls. (An exception is the bedroom of McKenzie’s brother, Christian, a 23-year-old with wispy facial hair who’s covered one of his walls with gargantuan The Lord of the Rings posters.) McKenzie’s father works from home, and while she says he’s supportive, he’s not involved with the series aside from occasionally slamming a door for a video. The family’s dog, a black Doberman mix named Lucy, isn’t allowed near visitors: She bites.
High school was difficult for McKenzie. “There were under 500 in my school,” she says. “My junior year, my best friend moved away, and this one girl sought me out and decided I was the bane of her existence. She made my life a living hell. She turned everyone against me and nobody talked to me. It totally sucked.”
She shrugs. “Whatever. I moved on. Typical Hollywood story.”
Two years ago, after graduating from high school—and having turned down offers of admission from two local arts colleges—McKenzie and Rose spent a week in Los Angeles. They’d been working on Sunshine Girl for a year and a half by that point, and they aimed to sell talent agencies on the series.
“One of the places we went, they were like, ‘You’re just not sexy enough,’” McKenzie recalls. “And I was like, ‘I’m 18 and really young-looking. I look 12.’ They didn’t understand the YouTube stuff, either.”
Rose continues: “It was mostly, ‘Oh, you’re adorable. You’re from Oregon and you’re doing YouTube.’ People were very confused by that. They didn’t understand how it could go from YouTube to network or cable television.”
For a while, McKenzie worked remotely with an agent and manager. She sent in audition tapes—for The Spectacular Now, Palo Alto, We’re the Millers, The Call—but was never cast. McKenzie dropped the agent and manager after six months. Hagen, meanwhile, directed her in two films. Sunshine Girl spinoff Black Eyed Kids played at Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre in 2012 but didn’t find distribution. The other, an ’80s-set thriller called Thr33, is still being edited.
A scholarship competition in Seventeen magazine proved to be McKenzie’s breakthrough. After appearing in the magazine last year, she was contacted by a literary agent, who pitched Sunshine Girl to the Weinstein Company and helped secure book and movie deals. Weinstein has a reputation for making critical darlings such as Oscar winners The King’s Speech and The Artist but hasn’t ventured much into young-adult fare. McKenzie is the only YouTuber on the studio’s roster.
It may go without saying that the content of Sunshine Girl doesn’t impress in terms of plot, acting or production value. Robert Thompson, a media scholar at Syracuse University, finds McKenzie authentic and appealing, but calls the storyline “pretty old and hackneyed.” And he’s skeptical about the Weinstein deal.
“Sunshine Girl is very effectively using the medium of the Internet,” Thompson says. “It’s perfectly sustainable because you’re watching it on a small screen, and you’re watching it in small bursts. One of the great appeals is that it’s kind of shoddy. But that could be completely neutered when it gets the full Hollywood treatment.”
Even so, the Weinstein deal is evidence of the changing relationship between traditional media businesses and the legions of young people (and their millions of fans) who’ve found fame online. Take the sequel to Pitch Perfect, whose cast will include several YouTube stars. Or the movie deal recently secured by Australian YouTube pranksters the Janoskians, or the film set to star teenage heartthrobs/Vine sensations Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas.
“What’s happening here is that traditional entertainment is trying to tap into the youth culture,” Shapiro says. “Online is where the fish are. We’re at a tipping point. This is just the beginning.”
YouTube itself is striving to improve the quality of its programming. It’s built massive production facilities in L.A., New York, London and Tokyo that YouTubers can access for free. A year ago, McKenzie, Rose and Hagen were tapped to join a fellowship program at YouTube Space L.A.: They attended seminars on lighting, editing and copyright infringement law, shot collaboration videos with other YouTubers, and received a $5,000 grant, half of which they put toward a new HD camera.
The Weinstein deal has the potential to line their pockets further. Rose is optimistic. During the June video shoot, I spot a cardboard box filled with mockups of the first book. On the cover, McKenzie, dressed in a frilly white dress, pearl necklace and Mary Jane heels, appears to be levitating. Rose encourages me to take a copy.
“Have Paige sign it, though,” she says, “so it’ll be worth money.”