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There And Back Again - How Michael Wormser Took The YouTube Route Back To Indie Filmmaking

Posted By Spike Friedman, Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Michael Wormser’s route toward his specific present role, as one of the go-to producers for YouTube stars making the jump to the big screen, makes sense only when you trace his career backwards. But also having spent some time with Wormser, it makes sense that an affable, hard-working guy would find his calling working within a creative community populated by those who chose to forge their own unusual paths in this 21st century version of the industry. Wormser was not born into Hollywood but grew up in New Iberia, Louisiana, “Cajun country,” as he readily calls it. He never imagined he would be involved in the entertainment industry until he was in college in Indiana. “Somebody had a sketch comedy group, and I joined that and really got the bug for it,” Wormser explains, citing the ‘90s heyday of Saturday Night Live for inspiring him to move to Los Angeles and pursue comedy.

He took classes at comedy theaters like The Groundlings and Improv Olympic, tending bar at night to pay his rent. While a short stint working as a PA at Gracie Films ended with Wormser making an ill-advised stand over the rotation of PA duties (a move that he describes in retrospect as “probably real dumb”), he was building a community in the comedy scene. “It was a close-knit improv group including guys like Eric Stonestreet and Pete Gardner, who have gone on to be successful, and who I’ve been able to maintain good relationships with,” Wormser says, “and it’s just cool that we came up from the same place 20 years ago.”

But Wormser was trying to perform at the time, and frustrated with his lack of progress following traditional paths, he made some moves to force the issue that would set his course. “I decided to make a short film called Who’s Sherman?” that I would write, direct and star in. All of my friends from Improv Olympic who wanted to be in production just came together, and we did it with no money.” Wormser was making it up as he went, turning to Craigslist for casting, going into production unsure of how he’d finance the whole thing. Mercifully his friend Greg Sipes, now a noted voice actor, stepped up and agreed to help finance the project and teach Wormser the ropes of producing his own work. “I learned that if you can get the ball rolling, you can do anything,” he recalls.

From there Wormser started making whatever he could, including producing music videos for bands he met tending bar. “I thought I had it all figured out,” Wormser says with a laugh. “I would work at night tending bar, and make stuff all day.” That was until he met his wife in 2006, who had a radical suggestion: Why not just produce work for a living? For Wormser, the light bulb went on.

He quit bartending and started taking on more professional work, working as a UPM on indie films. His natural inclination was to push the projects to get bigger and more ambitious. In some cases this meant packaging bigger-name actors into tiny projects. In others, it meant turning lucky moments into moves that brought higher-level talent to scripts he was developing. And sometimes it meant turning a chance phone call from a representative into a working relationship with director John Landis.

But after Wormser became a father, he needed to pursue something a bit more steady than producing indie features in the middle of a recession. So in 2009 he answered a Craigslist ad looking for someone to production manage 20 to 30 videos a week. While that volume and pace of output could have been daunting, it was exactly what Wormser was looking for. When he walked into the interview, it was with the Fine Brothers, who were the creative producers at the then fledgling Maker Studios. Maker was far from the YouTube behemoth that sold to Disney for $500 million. It was a handful of writer/creators, a few shooter/editors and a couple of producers.

Wormser was brought on to make sure that the top creators at Maker had the production support they needed to deliver their content on-time and on-budget. But the business model had yet to mature. “In 2010 not everyone believed you could make money on YouTube,” Wormser reminds me. 

He also was responsible for encouraging creative cross-pollination between the various content creators under Maker’s umbrella. Initially this was limited to a single YouTube channel called The Station, but eventually became a broader mission that led to platform-defining events like the wildly popular VidCon. “The Fine Brothers from the beginning saw how big this could get,” says Wormser. “I was just a producer who was excited to have a job.”

That job was making Maker as functional and efficient as possible. “It was low-hanging fruit,” says Wormser of the work he did to turn Maker into a content factory. He would arrange weekly meetings with content creators like Totally Sketch, run by director Michael Gallagher, Shay Carl, Timothy DeLaGhetto and others, coordinating programming for their channels, The Station and the network’s infrastructure. This meant building out a production process that could churn out dozens of well-produced videos a week on a shoestring budget. 

During Wormser’s time at Maker, they went from 30 million monthly views to 100 million, something he does not take credit for. “They were already growing exponentially,” he says, “but I was able to create a scalable model for the programming structure and workflow.” Despite its ad-hoc beginnings, Maker needed a slate of content they could depend on, week-to-week. Wormser made sure that happened.

Though Wormser was doing good work at Maker, his earlier work on features had lit a fire to produce films. “I came from the feature film world,” Wormser explains, “so I really wanted to make things with a cinematic quality, and the Fine Brothers were into a very regimented system.” That system meant production teams of three people supporting each creator, which allowed for work to be made quickly but limited the ability for it to evolve. “We were able to make great content, and understanding the scale at which we were working helped me facilitate our creators to make quality content within those parameters.” Each video’s budget was often spent on a single key location, prop or actor to flesh out the world; that was the limit of what could be done within the model Maker had created. Aside from that, it was green screens and visual effects provided by the post-production team that Maker assembled to put a professional sheen on the rough-around-the-edges work.

But from that small model, Wormser charted his course back into features. He moved within Maker from head of production to head of motion pictures, with the goal of collecting all of Maker’s talent in a single feature. He paired that goal with Glasgow Phillips’ screenplay “I Did It For The Lulz”, which became Smiley, a horror-comedy that brought a host of YouTube talent to the big screen for the first time. And at the tip of the production spear, he had the perfect in-house director, Michael Gallagher, whose YouTube channel Totally Sketch was the rare Maker channel that didn’t feature its primary talent in front of the camera.

When production stalled out within Maker, Wormser sought and received the studio’s blessing to go and try to make it on his own. “Wormser doubled down on finding alternate solutions to get the project made by any means necessary,” attests Gallagher, “always leading with optimism and a spirit of fun. And he was willing to bet on me as a first-time feature director, with no hesitation.” Gallagher helped finance the film with the money he had made as a YouTuber and was able to help flesh out the team via connections with fellow content creators. He brought YouTube star Shane Dawson into the fold as one of the leads, paired with less experienced, but still well-known talent, including the likes of Caitlin Gerard and Keith David.

Because Wormser and Gallagher had forged a shorthand language from their time at Maker, they were able to get Smiley shot in just 16 days. And because so much of the talent involved was—literally and naturally—internet famous, the trailer garnered over 30 million views when it went online in November of 2011. That kind of interest helped them presell the movie as SVOD, well before that was established as an industry standard. From there, Wormser was able to secure a limited theatrical run by partnering directly with AMC Theatres. As Wormser secured additional funding, allowing for greater resources in post and with marketing, buzz was building consistently from the YouTubers involved in the production—which is to say everything was going about as well as possible for an independent feature.

But 21st century models of filmmaking open themselves up to 21st century obstacles. The outlook for Smiley turned dark when users of an online message board took exception to the content of the movie, leading to a period of harassment for the filmmakers and threats that could have derailed the release of the film. “It went from going swimmingly to just being this nightmare,” Wormser says of the experience. Determined to see the project through, Wormser and Gallagher pushed past the backlash and released the film, though they were forced to attend the premiere with bodyguards in case any of the threats materialized.

Its controversy aside, Smiley planted a flag for the YouTube generation within theatrical releases. Wormser and Gallagher continued to work together, channeling most of their talent through the YouTube pipeline. Some of it has found its way back to YouTube, for channels like BlackBox TV. But they have continued to make work that has gone to larger platforms. Despite their access to YouTube talent, there are still challenges. “They have a bread and butter with their channels,” Wormser observes, “and they don’t want to mess that up by not performing well in a film.” However because of his partnership with Gallagher, Wormser has been able to build a level of trust leading to the likes of Jimmy Tatro, Shane Dawson and Logan Paul appearing in the work he produces. While Paul has waded into his own controversies in the past year, Wormser has nothing but praise for his work on Legendary Digital’s The Thinning. “He was really committed,” Wormser confirms. “He really just brought it.” Wormser also noted how working with YouTubers who are used to a level of creative autonomy means that the rehearsal process becomes an essential collaborative step in the creative process. “Even though we have the constraints of filming something,” Wormser says, “we’re always on the same page and fully prepared.”

It’s been a long journey to get here, but Wormser is back making independent films like he wanted. With Gallagher he’s currently taking the feature Funny Story around the festival circuit. The film is a dramedy, one that represents a more thoughtful evolution of the work that Gallagher and Wormser make together. For Gallagher, there is no better producer for him to work with as his career path takes on new directions. “Wormser is the secret ingredient in our productions,” he smiles. “He will take on any obstacle and move mountains to transcend the usual limitations of independent filmmaking.”

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