Director/Producer Dan Dobi’s story began simply enough. He was just an ordinary kid with the family video camera. Little did he know then how far his love of film would take him. Highly renowed for his work in the world of music videos, Dobi has worked his magic for Paramore, Death Cab For Cutie, Diddy, TI, Jim Jones, Busta Rhymes, Ice Cube, Ting Tings and more. While navigating the ever changing world of traditional, he stumbled into the fascinating world of YouTube culture. This intriguing new medium posed some interesting questions. Who are the hugest YouTubers and what is our obsession with them? Why are we mesmerized by the likes of Hannah Hart, Mr. Guitar Man, and Wheezy Waiter? It was these burning questions that sparked the idea for “Please Subscribe: A Documentary About YouTubers.” The film is a documentary that gives and exclusive look and explains the phenomenon of some of the most influential and unique content creators raising the bar for online media. Through a series of intimate narrative vignettes, the film explores the a different journey taken by a creator to get to where they are today, how they’re staying relevant in a growing and saturated market, what their daily lives consist of, what drives them, and what they hope the future in this unstable, ever changing medium looks like. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with director Dan Dobi to discuss his unique career, the challenges of bringing this inspiring film to life, the relationships which formed because of it and what the future holds for this amazing young filmmaker.
Typically, I wouldn’t start with a question like this but seeing you had such a unique career path, it seemed fitting. What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Wow! I wanted to be a veterinarian!
You have come a long way but certainly not from that path! [laughs]
Yeah! I wanted to be a vet because I love animals but then I changed my mind when I heard you had to go to school for roughly 10 years! Then I wanted to be a gym teacher! I was pretty good at kickball, so I thought, “Why not make it 40 years of kickball and call it a day?!” [laughs] That was my second choice! Then when I was actually applying to schools, my video teacher at the time told me to go to school for film. I made the decision to go to film school at the last second. I didn’t even know that was a career! I had no idea! I thought it was a career further past being a vet. I thought being a filmmaker was an impossible thing to do. But sure enough, I did it! Which is cool! [laughs]
What was it about film that intrigued you early on and made you want to pursue it?
I was playing with the family video camera at a very early age. I had my first camera when I was 11 years old. What I would do is go to these punk rock and hardcore ska shows with my older brother. He would bring me along and I started filming bands. I was just a kid in the corner who was filming all of these bands. I think it all started there, using the camera at such a young age. I can’t explain it, it just happened! [laughs] It was a really organic thing I fell in love with. It was a passion for me. Following what you love to do is always the best case scenario. It didn’t even seem like it was going to be a career for me until my junior year when my video teacher said, “Hey! You should go to film school!” and I said, “That’s a thing?!” [laughs] That’s kinda how it happened.
You are fairly well known for your work in traditional media. What was the catalyst which brought you to the world of YouTubers?
Coming from traditional media and having a lot of videos on MTV, or wherever they were playing them at the time, I had a realization. I had videos that were playing on MTV and they would say my name on TV, ” … directed by Dan Dobi,” but no one was really recognizing me. I mean, every now and then I would get a phone call or maybe a Myspace message, at the time, with someone saying, “Oh, I saw your video on TV.” It wasn’t until I started posting to YouTube where I would get people on social media saying, “Oh my God! I saw your last video. It was hilarious!” I would get so much more from that then getting a huge video on MTV. I started thinking, “What is going on here? More people are watching YouTube than TV?” Sure enough, that is how it happened and I started making content for YouTube. I didn’t do it super often but when I did I was causing some kind of ruckus in the YouTube world. Eventually, I just traded over for a little bit. I stuck my foot in and met a lot of really cool people and noticed it was a viable way to make an income. It was just a really cool place to shoot videos and upload it for instant gratification! In the past, I would submit a video to a network and they wouldn’t play it for two to three months. This is a video which was contracted by a record label! By the time it aired, it was two to three months old! When it comes to the video landscape, when a video is two or three months old, it is old news! You have been on 10 more projects since then! In the YouTube world, it is really cool and I can submit content instantly and not have to go through third parties to get it on the airwaves. Now, it is under my control and I have become my own distribution network. That is an awesome thing! Not only can you make money but you make the rules! You are your own distributor at this point. If it is good, it will arise.
You took that love of the medium and made a documentary on it. How did the idea for what would eventually become “Please Subscribe: A Documentary About YouTubers” come about?
The idea came about after the first VidCon, which was roughly four years ago. I had the idea because when I went to my first VidCon, I didn’t know where I was! I was blown away because there were so many people who were getting a billion views all over the place! I thought, “I am a nobody in this world! What am I doing wrong?” That made me want to learn more! I sat down with a friend and started interviewing him. His name is Mitchell Davis and he is in the film. I took that idea and it sat on the sidelines for a while but eventually, I decided, “OK, I am going to start making this!” Three years after I did my first shot for the film, I later re-did that section, I said, “Let’s get started!” January of 2012 is when the filming started.
You definitely have some terrific personalities in the film. How did you cast for the project and what intrigued you about these folks?
A lot of the people in the film are my friends. A lot of them I have done work with in the past or they are people I was interested in because we have a mutual path in the YouTube world. A lot of them are my friends and when I reached out to them, they said, “Yes!” What intrigued me was that a lot of these people are their own bosses, they are entrepreneurs and have built this base following. It takes a real effort to do that and it is, by no means, an overnight thing. It can happen with a viral mass and it has with someone like Hannah Hart, who it just happened overnight and you can make a career out of it. In that case, the decision is made for you and it wasn’t a choice you made. Not only am I a fan of people like Dan Brown, Wheezy Waiter and Mitchell Davis, who are in all of my films, but those are some of my really tight friends. I talk to them on a regular basis and they are in the film. I think all of their sections came out very well. I think that is because they trusted me and I am not just some guy in a chair across from them who is trying to dig up dirt. I am just a guy who is their friend who wants to bring in a camera and see how they live their life. I wanted to share their experiences because a lot of their lives are private, even though they do broadcast their lives and talk about what they are going through. It is not the same, there is a certain fourth wall about it that I wanted to tear down and show that these are real people. They are real human beings and even though a lot of people view them as Internet celebrities or celebrities in general, they are hustlers — hard working good people!
As a filmmaker, what is the biggest challenge on this project?
I did a Kickstarter and raised roughly $11,000 but it wasn’t enough. What I had to do was invest my own money. It got to the point where I was hurting and I didn’t really want to ask for anything more. I felt this is what I had promised everyone and I didn’t want to ask for anyone elses money, so I put several thousand of my own dollars into the project and made it happen. That being said, I feel the biggest challenge was the money situation. I got through it and there is no frame I would change. Even if I had a million dollars to do it, I don’t think I could have made this film any better! When you want to do a documentary, you think it requires a 10-man crew but I did all of it myself. I did the sound. I did the cameras. In fact, when it was a two-camera shot, I was using a handheld in one and the other was on a tripod! I was really Iron Man’d it up and did it all myself!
That’s awesome! Being as close to the YouTube phenomenon as you are, where do you see the medium heading?
I think some people will be using YouTube as a launch pad or a trampoline where they go from here to another thing, whether it is TV or film. All of those have something to offer. The space is becoming so over-saturated right now that every other network, or whoever else, really want to get their feet in and experiment in this YouTube world. That is because they are seeing all the eyeballs going. You don’t necessarily have to have a TV show to be successful because some people are super successful with YouTube shows. What YouTube is, for the most part, is tiny entertainment. You can watch something during lunch or you can watch a whole 30-minute episode of something. I think in the future what we will see is people creating not just three- or four-minute videos but they will be able to release movies on YouTube. It is a viable platform to make money and distribute it for free. Everyones thing when they get a TV show or a movie idea is “Where is our distribution?” Well, guess what? YouTube it! You can distribute there and it is not that big of an issue! Will it still be good to get on TV and create independent movies? Sure, that is everyone’s dream! But you have to start somewhere and YouTube is a cool way to do it.
How have you evolved as a filmmaker since you started out?
I have learned to be a little more patient, I would say. I have learned that if you are waiting on someone to get something done, just learn to do it yourself, whether it is lighting, shooting, directing, producing or editing. I know all of the aspects because when I started up, I didn’t have any money to play with. I was shooting bands for free. No labels were paying me. No bands were paying me! I was doing it because I loved it. I think that is why I am somewhat successful at having a film career. I would have never done it for the money, I just loved it. I had a camera in my hand at 11 years old! Like I said, I never thought this could be a career, up until high school. This is a passion of mine and something I have never given up. Even if I wasn’t making money doing it, I would still do it. That is where a lot of YouTubers come into play. They started doing it for fun and then it turned into a career. Not a lot of YouTubers go into it with the mentality of “I am going to make a lot of money doing this and make it a career.” You will start seeing that happen in the next year five years. People are looking at their idols that are YouTubers and are thinking, “Hey, I want to be like this person. I want to start daily blogging or start making a show on YouTube.” If it is good enough and consistent enough, you will go somewhere with it.
You are certainly a busy man. What is in store for you in the short term, Dan?
Ya know what? This year I am starting off a little differently. I am obviously worried about “Please Subscribe” and the future of it. I am really sticking with it as long as I can stick with it! This year is going to focus more on my physical health. Yesterday, (January 30, 2013) I had back surgery performed on me. I have been suffering from back problems all of my life. At 28 years old, it was finally time to say, “Enough is enough. I need to get my health in check.” I have been working so hard on other things, I kinda let my health slip away from me. I got back surgery yesterday and until I am better, I need to take the physical therapy seriously and work on being able to walk again. It has been a struggle over the past few months, even with things as simple as walking. On another note, I am trying to raise money for a feature film I want to work on. It is not a documentary, it is a film. It is a script I have had in my hands for almost a year-and-a-half and I really want to do it! I think this may be the year where I make my first narrative feature! That is what I think people expect from me. Everyone says, “Where have you been with music videos and stuff?” I want to own stuff. I don’t want to create a music video that a record label or a band owns, I want to make a movie that I own and decide where it goes, how it is being distributed and whatnot! That is what I did with “Please Subscribe”. It is not even out yet but I like to call it a success so far. It sounds like it is going to go places! That is what I want to do — create content I can own and make decisions with without having a third party all over me. Right now, in short, we are looking to raise money for the narrative film.
When can film fans check out “Please Subscribe” in theaters?
The film will be in theaters for February 5 for one night only, one showing only, in 250 theaters in the United States. For more information, you can go to www.pleasesubscribefilm.com. We have been working with a company called Screen Vision, who have been nothing but awesome to us and have been helping us get national distribution.
Where can people learn more about the film?
Terrific! Thanks so much for your time today, Dan! You are truly inspirational and we wish you the best of luck on all of your endeavors!
Thanks so much! Take care and we will talk soon!
“Please Subscribe: A Documentary About YouTubers” will premiere in theatres for one night only on Tuesday, February 5th. This limited theatrical release will run in approximately 300 theatres across the country including Los Angeles. As a special opportunity YouTubers attending the screening will have a chance to win a role in the final cut of the film which will go into wide release on March 22nd.