A vacant school building sits next door to AwesomenessTV’s office in West Los Angeles. CEO and founder Brian Robbins would like to take it over. His company has already expanded into an annex across the street, and in September moved competitor Big Frame, acquired this year, into a space adjacent to the main office, taking down the wall in between. But AwesomenessTV is a digital content company targeting teens and tweens—so adding a school building to its campus makes particular sense.
“We could shoot in there,” Robbins says. “We shoot a lot of school stuff.”
Founded in July 2012, AwesomenessTV has its hands in multiple pots—YouTube channels, talent representation, traditional television and film production. A subsidiary of DreamWorks Animation since last year (having been sold for $33 million before its first birthday), AwesomenessTV was launched as part of YouTube’s $100 million original channels initiative, meant to foster new content on the site.
But AwesomenessTV can be viewed as an extension of work Robbins has been doing since costarring on the late-’80s, early-’90s ABC sitcom Head of the Class.
The son of a character actor, Robbins began getting guest-star roles in his late teens on series such as Trapper John, M.D., The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes. Then on Head of the Class he played motorcycle-riding bad boy Eric Mardian throughout the show’s five-season run, beginning in 1986.
“I knew after a few years of Head of the Class that I did not want to do this for the rest of my life,” Robbins says of acting. “The director, the producers, the writers, those are the guys who had all the power.”
Robbins wanted that power, and began pumping the Head of the Class creative team for advice. He and fellow cast member Dan Schneider took a crack at writing an episode of the show. Two weeks later they were filming that episode.
After Head of the Class, Robbins began working as a writer, director and producer in TV and film. With a few exceptions such as executive producing HBO’s Arli$$, Robbins’ résumé reads like a history of teen and tween entertainment: Smallville, One Tree Hill and What I Like About You for the WB and The CW and Sonny With a Chance for Disney Channel; he also collaborated with Schneider to create All That and Kenan & Kel for Nickelodeon. And he directed feature films Varsity Blues and The Perfect Score.
In 2009, Robbins’ reps at UTA set up a meeting between him and Lucas Cruikshank, a teenager whose YouTube channel was the first on the site to amass more than one million followers. Cruikshank was famous for playing a character named Fred, a young boy who talked in an exceptionally high-pitched voice. Robbins had never heard of him. After the meeting he went home and asked his children, then 10 and 11, and their friends if they had ever heard of Fred. The kids quoted the character’s lines and mimicked his voice as they escorted Robbins to the computer to introduce him to the source material.
“There was this complete alternative universe going on that I really wasn’t aware of in my own house,” Robbins says.
A day later, Robbins had decided that he would produce and finance Fred: The Movie, which Nickelodeon would buy, leading to the network’s series Fred: The Show. It also laid the groundwork for AwesomenessTV. Kids, Robbins says, no longer watch linear television and have been abandoned by the theatrical movie business. In digital, he saw a chance to capture a huge underserved audience. When DreamWorks Animation bought AwesomenessTV, Robbins’ instincts appeared to be confirmed.
“He identified an incredibly valuable white space, 12-to-24-year-olds, particularly women,” Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation founder and CEO, says of Robbins. “He, having seen that opportunity, went about creating content. He’s a storyteller, Brian. He has just done an incredible job of being a magnet for talent and of building out arguably one of the fastestgrowing and most valuable brands in that ecosystem, and he’s only just getting started.”
In April, AwesomenessTV acquired digitalcontent company Big Frame for $15 million. Big Frame’s channels reach more than 70 million subscribers combined. But AwesomenessTV bought the company for its talentmanagement division. Robbins emphasizes the importance of the company maintaining a close relationship with its talent. He describes how he recently gave a late-night pep-talk over the phone to one of AwesomenessTV’s biggest stars, Cameron Dallas, who was about to begin shooting his first feature-length film, which is being produced by AwesomenessTV. Dallas is 20 years old and has 5.9 million followers on video-sharing service Vine.
“I am able to relate to talent,” Robbins says. “That is probably the biggest bonus that being a bad child actor gave me.”