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Rage Against the Machinima: As YouTube Becomes Increasingly Wealthy, Its Stars and the Networks Who Contract With Them Battle for Money and Creative Control

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In the past, the talent needed Hollywood studios or record labels or book publishers in order to get their work distributed. Today, not so much.

And that, Lisi says, leaves a lot of video creators asking, "What do these guys do for me?"

"From the standpoint of people who grew up with the Internet, many of these young artists — and I call them artists because I do think they are in the truest sense of the word: They are doing what they are doing out of a creative impulse — for them, it's like, 'Why do I need a middleman?'"

YouTube, after all, was founded on the idea of cutting out the middleman, of making it possible for a filmmaker to post a film and for anyone with an Internet connection to access that film instantly.

Video makers, Lisi says, can easily reach out to each other, unlike actors or recording artists of the past. "Because these are creatures of the Internet, not only do they broadcast to their audience, they consume each other's content, they are fans of each other, and they communicate," Lisi says.

"What you have are the benefits of a union without the burdens of a union — all of the talent sharing information almost instantaneously," Lisi says. And, "Much like a union, they can threaten group action."

"It's a very interesting power dynamic, and I think that the industry is still trying to work out how to deal with this genie that is newly out of the bottle. [YouTube] provides a lot for a lot of people, but it is a genie, and you don't want to piss it off."

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Machinima is in the process of changing its terms of use, its partners say, walking its existing talent from open-ended contracts to contracts with three-year terms. All 6,000-plus partners were asked to agree by Jan. 1, 2013, to updated terms.

No one from the company would confirm whether the change was due to the onslaught of bad publicity.

As for Vacas, he finally settled his dispute with the company in October and parted ways with Machinima. Today, he's represented by a new organization called Union for Gamers.

Union for Gamers is the brainchild of Donovan Duncan, who's also the vice president for marketing at Curse Gaming, a company that has specialized in video game add-ons and industry news.

"There's a lot of ridiculous contracts out there," Duncan says. "Gaming is something we should support, not hinder by locking people into these really bad contracts, so I came up with the idea of, well, let's build a union for gamers, by gamers."

Everyone in Union for Gamers, Duncan says, would be entitled to the same CPM, which would be raised every year. Gamers no longer would be forced into restrictive contracts — union members would have the right to leave whenever they saw fit.

He promises "resources to help people create better videos," adding, "and we'll do the labor, the administration and ad-serving side, allowing them to monetize their content."

But labor, administration and ad service are essentially what networks like Machinima do. When questioned, Duncan admits that this new "union" is really more like a new network — albeit one with high-minded intentions — and therefore competition for Machinima.

Not coincidentally, it's a network that counts several former Machinima creators among its partners. Its public face, in fact, is none other than Bachir Boumaaza, better known as Athene.

Boumaaza announced the partnership in a video posted two months after he left Machinima.

"I can talk, make videos about how the landscape on YouTube should be, but unless I come with a real alternative, why would other networks listen to what I say?" he says, sitting in the same spot, shot with the same black-and-white filter used in his video supporting Vacas.

The video appeared on July 17, but Boumaaza was intent on leaving Machinima even earlier. In a video posted in March, a full two months before he denounced Machinima in solidarity with Vacas, Boumaaza posted a video about Union for Gamers.

So Vacas' contract dispute, and Boumaaza's much-publicized support, proved to be great publicity for the new venture. But Duncan insists that Machinima's problems are real. Even without an upstart competitor to fan the flames, the blowback was inevitable.

"The community was already upset that they were getting locked into these contracts, and I come by and say, 'Well, also: It's probably not fair either, guys, you should probably look at that,' and I think that's probably what sparked that off."

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Tessa Stuart
Contact: Tessa Stuart