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.)