A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
It is only a matter of time before a YouTube filmmaker wins Oscar gold and my money is on Joe Penna. His videos have 325 million views and he has over 2.5 million subscribers to his MysteryGuitarMan YouTube channel. Mainstream America was first introduced to him in THIS McDonald’s commercial.
YouTube is largely populated by videos that cater to the medium’s overwhelming young and male demographic. Thus, channels focused on gaming and adolescent humor abound. Yet, despite the explosion in the number of YouTubers, the medium has relatively few genuine filmmakers. Joe’s intelligent, creative and entertaining videos satisfy the young YouTube viewer’s comedy fix while crossing over to a more mature and sophisticated audience.
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Joe Penna came to America speaking two English words (“welcome” and “balloon”). Just as Brian Wilson learned the craft of songwriting as a High School recluse, Joe’s inherent shyness and limited vocabulary caused him to begin his film career in his bedroom.
According to Joe,“… the fact that I couldn’t speak English that well made it very difficult for me to socialize. (It) made me a recluse, basically… so that I was online a majority of the time… if you’re a very shy person, that’s what ends up happening. You spend all your time on the Internet.
I started making YouTube videos, just for fun… there were just a couple people on YouTube at the time. I figured I could try something different, and since I still wasn’t that great at talking… I started doing special effects and things like that.”
You can watch/listen to our 17-minute discussion below:
Hobby + Passion = (Eventual) Success
Joe’s immigrant parents were excited that he was on the road to becoming a doctor. However, he shocked them by pursuing a film career in lieu of medical school.“(In college) I was studying to be a doctor… and I realized that… my hobby was actually my passion. I didn’t wanna be doing medicine. I just wanted to do YouTube videos instead.”
Joe’s first breakthrough video was The Puzzle, which leveraged crude butclever editing (562 edits, to be exact). The popularity of this low-budget video alerted Joe to the possibility of launching a film career via YouTube.“I had The Puzzle, which was my Rubik’s Cube video (from) way back in the day. And that’s kinda what made me realize that there was something to YouTube. That got to… almost one million hits, which at the time was very impressive. That’s what made me quit college basically. [LAUGHS] After I got my Bachelors, I was going to keep going (to medical school, but) I decided not to. After that video… I kept trying and trying and trying, working in Boston… eventually I did Guitar Impossible there, which was very, very popular. That’s when I decided, ‘That’s it. I’ve got to move to Los Angeles, because that’s where I’ll be able to make it.'”
Ford loaned Joe a car in exchange for some in-video promotions. Not able to afford airfare, Joe drove the loaned car to California. However, like most overnight successes that are years in the making, Joe’s hard work had only just begun. Despite working as an itinerate video editor, Joe was forced to sell some of his personal possessions to pay his rent. “Yeah, there was one lens…for my still camera… that was very difficult to sell. I sold it one, because I couldn’t make rent that month… and because I wanted to go on a date with a very pretty girl, who’s now my wife.”
Guitar Impossible… had millions and millions and millions of hits…but it slows down eventually. It was difficult for me because I didn’t know what was next. I was making about $900 a month, and my rent was $850 a month. I had to steal my neighbor’s WiFi. I had to sleep on the floor. I had to sit out in the hallway, and plug into the building’s electricity.”
Revealing the Mystery Behind The GuitarMan
I was curious as to the genesis of the MysteryGuitarMan persona, so I asked Joe if it arose from his shyness. “Uh, no. The sunglasses actually came because I had this camera that its iris was broken. So I had to flip on all of lights that I had around me and I was squinting. And I decided to just put some sunglasses on. And I had already signed up for the MysteryGuitarMan user name and some of the comments went, ‘Oh I get it, you’re wearing sunglasses, you’re a MysteryGuitarMan’. And I go, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to do.'”[LAUGHS]
Joe’s first foray into long-form video was Meridian, an intriguing series, starring Orlando Jones. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. Meridian is proof that the skills Joe honed as a YouTuber translate aptly to the big screen. I watched Meridian in a theatre and the script, acting and production values were indistinguishable from a major studio release.
I asked Joe if Meridian met his expectations. “I’m really happy with how it came out. We didn’t have that big of a budget. I wanted to prove to people that I could do something dramatic, something long-form…and I kinda threw them something way out of left field. I’m used to doing the one-minute long flashy, happy videos. Now, all of a sudden I come out with… a short film.”
YouTube Feedback Loop
YouTubers have a tremendous advantage over filmmakers of the past. They can quickly and inexpensively gather and assess market feedback. No longer are filmmakers forced to spend small fortunes and wait months before knowing how their film will be perceived by their target market. Studios can create elaborate procedures to test specific aspects of a film, such as the title, ending, trailer, etc. However, traditional testing approaches are expensive only provide feedback from a relatively small population.
“It’s difficult as a filmmaker, you know, because after you make a movie, you work so hard on it and you put it up in a movie theater. And you have your screening, and you know afterwards everyone comes down. And as you’re drinking cocktails, they tell you how amazing your movie is. And then, you know, you look on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s got a 0%. [LAUGHS]
Like all successful entrepreneurs, Joe has learned to listen to the market’s feedback, even when it is mean-spirited. No one is true to your face. On YouTube, people hide behind their anonymity. So… it’s a better learning tool. You have (to have) thick skin… because people will tell you what you’ve done wrong. They’ll be mean about it, but they’ll tell you what you’ve done.”
The volume of content required to be successful online, a minimum of two new videos each week, can be daunting. “Yeah, it is a lot of work. It’s basically a full time job. We’re spending at least 40 hours actually producing the videos and getting them out…working on annotations, answering comments, spending the rest of the time thinking up new ideas, checking YouTube, checking Twitter, checking Facebook. I always have to be plugged in. From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, and even in your dreams, you better dream of a good video idea.”
Because of constant need to create fresh content, Joe encourages ideas from his fans and haters. “And there is some just straight up good feedback on YouTube… like, ‘Maybe you should try to do this video, but use a backwards song next time.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s actually a good idea. I’ll try it.'”
Advice For Young YouTubers
I wrapped up our conversation by asking Joe if he had any advice for the current crop of kids making videos in their bedrooms. “Well, the question I get a lot of times is, ‘What can I do to make more money on YouTube? What kind of videos should I do to make more money on YouTube?’ And I think that’s the wrong question to be asking…(because) you have to spend so much time on it to (rise) above what your peers are doing and to become popular.
To do that, you really have to do something you love and that sounds really cliché. Before I started doing YouTube, I would see all these self-help (books and) they would always say, ‘Do you what you love doing and everything will come.’ And I thought that was bullshit. I thought… there must be some kind of secret sauce… there must be something that they’re hiding. There must be (something that) if you do(it) over and over and over again, you’ll be rich and popular. But that’s not the case. You just have to… get really lucky (and) work your ass off.”
Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never Tweet about lame-ass YouTube videos or that killer burrito I just ate.