YouTube is turning 10 this month, and it has come a long way since that first trip to the zoo in 2005. Despite having already achieved Internet ubiquity over the last decade, you’ve probably seen their recent efforts to reach wider audiences through a massive ad campaign, highlighting the channels of wildly popular content creators Michelle Phan, Bethany Mota, and Rosanna Pansino. With millions of subscribers apiece, YouTube has arguably become a bigger, more accessible medium than television. At the very least, it’s clear that this site has evolved into a powerful artistic outlet and community where — with some talent, persistence, and sheer luck — you can settle down and carve out yourself a bonafide creative career (or at least land that first big break).
Sounds like the dream, right? Sure it does, and as YouTube enters its tween years, we felt compelled to investigate what this platform means to up-and-coming artists and creatives and how exactly they can use it as a springboard for their projects and ideas.
Enter filmmaker Olan Rogers.
Let me begin by saying I’ve met few people as grateful or accommodating as Rogers, who currently boasts a YouTube subscriber base of more than 700,000 people. Besides responding daily to countless fans across his social media accounts, he is always looking for that next opportunity to give back – whether that means taking a free pizza party on tour, donating a portion of all proceeds from his clothing line to charity, or setting up individual scholarships for budding students and filmmakers. Not to mention, this entire interview was made possible because he more than generously agreed to set aside two hours from his vacation in NYC to meet me at Chelsea Market and talk about his life as an actor, writer, director, entrepreneur, and all-around nice guy (and enjoy a Darth Vader cupcake along the way, too, of course).
But before all of that — a little back story on the root beer float enthusiast from Tennessee.
Rogers’ goofball charisma and penchant for comedy and filmmaking is what initially drew me to his video work, which I discovered as far as back as 2007. From his absurdist, pop-culture-ridden shorts to his immensely popular story vlogs, it’s obvious that he has a knack for storytelling, self-deprecation, and the well-executed joke. There’s a compelling and natural ease behind his delivery and presence; you can’t help but feel as though you’re listening to the zany escapades of a friend eager to catch up. His smile – worn like a uniform – is big, genuine, and infectious, and his quick wit and charm will keep you hanging on every word.
The laughs and amiability are only the beginning, however. Unlike many other YouTubers and Internet elite, Rogers’ creative endeavors have the uncanny ability to bring and hold people together, to erase the dogma of celebrity and break down the divide between audience and auteur. Through embarrassing childhood (and adulthood) stories, science fiction narratives, and his own DIY soda parlor, he has created communities encouraging of boundless passion and carefree fun. “There will be people that will say you can’t make a living out of something that you love to do,” he says, “but are you really living by not doing it?”
This exuberance for life and art is a refreshing and startling change of pace for an exceedingly disenfranchised generation, and because Rogers has shared so much joy with the world, we wanted share to Alt Citizen with him – for you. So pull up a chair and come get acquainted – we’ve got a lot of dreaming to do.
Thanks so much for taking the time to meet with me! How’s your vacation so far?
Fantastic. Fannntastic. Pretty much what I do when I go to any city is try to find the spots where famous movies were filmed. So, I associate New York with Home Alone 2 and try to find where he ripped apart the necklaces and threw them on the ground. I always try to find that dang spot. I’m really weird like that. Whenever I go to Chicago, I look at the above-ground train system and think of Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins.
What’s one thing about what it takes to do the work you do that people might not realize on first glance?
It’s friggen hard work. Mounds of it. It’s hard because, as an outsider, someone might look at YouTube and think anyone can do it. And the thing is, yeah, anyone can do it, but once you get to a certain stage, you have to keep trying to better yourself and perfect your craft. Then where do you go from there? You have to keep thinking of new ways to keep it fun and fresh, in the same way a television series asks itself, what are we going to do this season? It’s the same thing. Except instead of creative teams out the wazoo, it’s just me.
You primarily do three styles of videos: story vlogs (your most popular), shorts, and video series. Would it be easier to focus on just one?
I think each one delves into a passion of mine. I love to tell stories and goof off and have fun, which is where the story vlogs come in. They’re actually very therapeutic, since I get to sit and let out all of my anger out in a positive way. Then, the shorts are great because I love doing sketches, but the video series stuff…. See, I eventually want to be a director and do more serious projects, so I feel that each video series is helping me perfect that craft. ‘Cause YouTube’s not going to last forever, and I don’t want to be a YouTuber forever, so I want to start developing skills that will lead me to directing.
I was wondering if you have any plans for full-length feature work.
I’m writing two books right now. I want to do feature films for each, but the budgets aren’t realistic. I have no money for them, so my thinking is: do the work, write it as a book, put it out there, see if a budget can form, and if it takes off, make a movie. Hopefully it works.
That’s interesting because I wanted to ask about Heaven’s Vault. Is that the hope for this project?
Yes, that is exactly it. I know a lot of YouTubers are writing books right now, but those books are like biographies, which seems so weird to me. Yeah, you’ve done really well for yourself, but you haven’t really gotten there yet. I just want to tell a fictional story, and Heaven’s Vault is something really cool that my friend Jake Sidwell and I are writing together. It’s a tag-team effort. The penname is actually our names put together, along with “Hammersnow,” which comes from the war dance initiated by the clasp of friends in Lion’s Blaze 2. We’ve written countless video projects together, so I’m confident about it.
What was your first viral video? Do you remember your reaction at the time?
Probably Ghost in the Stalls. That’s the only one that really blew up – and I don’t know why. ‘Cause I first told the story in New York when I was an opener on the Dial Up Tour, and this is the funny thing [laughs], this is the perfect question. So I told the story on tour, and then… crickets. Nobody laughed at it. And I was like, oh my gosh, this is a funny freaking story, why aren’t people laughing? So I just told one more and got off stage quick, ‘cause nobody was there to see me. But when I got home from tour, I told myself I’d keeping going with it and make it into a video, because I knew it was funny. I knew it.
Did the video, then all of a sudden – something abnormal was happening. The likes were flying up and up, and I was like, what’s happening? I don’t have the subscriber base for this to happen. Apparently, it blew up on Tumblr somehow – like huge.
Was that the first video to break a million views?
I think so.
How’d that feel?
Terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. I kind of wanted it to stop, because I didn’t want to be a one hit wonder and then fade into obscurity. But I started doing more and more story vlogs after that, and people generally loved them. Everyone has their favorite one now.
Did you feel pressure to repeat that success afterwards?
A little bit, but I told myself that I can’t give these people what they want for my next video, because I don’t want to be defined only by telling stories. I’m a storyteller, yes, but I want to make films. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. So I was like, all right, you know what, the next video I do, I’m going to come up with something absurd. That ended up being this ridiculous spy short called Winter’s Eye Kills the Young, and it still ended up doing pretty well.
From what I could find online, it seems like you studied filmmaking and photography in college. Did you also study acting?
I went to the University of Memphis and have a BA in Communications, with a concentration in TV and Film… which is pretty useless [laughs]. Just go to a film school if you want to do film. But no, I have no acting experience. It’s pretty much a thing where I just started being in my videos because I didn’t have anyone else. There was never a plan for acting – it just came out of necessity. Right now, I’m exploring it, because I’ve come to realize that acting is something I can use to see how directors work.
It’ll definitely inform and enhance the way you talk to actors. I’m an actor myself, so I understand why you’d want that experience.
Exactly. From acting, you can tell when directors aren’t doing their jobs and getting the most out of their talent. Actors want to be told hey, we got it. I was on a movie once and this was said all the time: “Yeah, that was pretty good. I think it’s good enough.” And I was like, what? If it’s not perfect, let’s redo it. It was such a frustrating thing. I had to fight for specific shots. I remember I was doing this emotional scene – I did something like an hour of crying for it – and I asked to see the shot to make sure that they got my eyes. ‘Cause that’s where all the emotion is. The eyes are everything. And they kept telling me we got it, we got it. And when they finally showed it to me, the shot didn’t get my eyes! It made me want to cry even more [laughs].
Are you auditioning at this point?
I’ve auditioned for a few things, and I got to do one film called As Dreamers Do, where I played Walt Disney. And I’ve got a film coming up where I’m a big supporting role. It’s a comedy, and it’s really funny. I told them that if you’re passionate about it, let’s do it. That’s my first criteria: are you passionate? If you are, I’m in. I don’t care about the money. And then I also got asked to potentially act in this Super Bowl commercial [laughs], but that obviously didn’t come through.
Eventually I need to pursue an agent for acting. I want to get on bigger sets, but the level I’m at right now doesn’t allow me to do that. I’ve never been on a huge set – I just haven’t.
Really? You’ve got a pretty big following.
I’ve tried to get an agent in Nashville I don’t know how many times – nothing!
Man, if Olan Rogers can’t get an agent, what am I supposed to do? [laughs] So, in addition to film, you have a clothing line called Olan Rogers Apparel. I’m curious how fashion found its way into your work. What was the inspiration behind designing and selling clothes?
This is a big topic in the documentary about the Soda Parlor, so I’ll leave most of it in there. But the whole apparel thing started when I noticed other YouTubers selling merchandise that only had their names or faces on it. And I hated that. I wanted to do shirts where you didn’t have to know me but you could still think man, that’s a cool shirt. That was the first thing I decided on – that if I’m going to do shirts, it needs to be so that anyone could want to wear it. So I purposefully didn’t put my name or face on anything. Then, what ended up happening was that I got more and more passionate about it as time went on.
Anything I do – I just tackle it. Hard. So when it first started to take off, I looked for ways to make it better. More fun, better quality. And it got to the point where it was successful enough that I felt like I’d rather have that fund my videos than my videos. Because the views will go down eventually, but if I can build something that has a structure and can support itself without me always in the equation – that’s perfect. It can just keep living on.
Why do you think your views will go down?
That’s just what every YouTuber goes through. And when that happens, I will shut down my channel and restart and recreate myself. I don’t want to stay on YouTube forever. I want to go off and do other stuff. YouTube is definitely my home right now, but eventually you have to leave home, you know?
Anyway, the merchandise kept getting bigger and bigger, so we kept taking it more seriously – and when we did that, people took it more seriously. Then we asked ourselves, what if we could get people to not view this as merchandise but as apparel? That was the mission for a while: make people view this as more legitimate. After coming out with designs that were better crafted, people started taking it even more seriously. From that point, it became a tool to do the things we really wanted to do – like taking a free pizza party tour across the country. It’s never been to make gobs of money. Half the stuff we do, there’s no money in it – it’s just fun. But the apparel lets us do that, and eventually it let us open the Soda Parlor.
The Soda Parlor seems like a big commitment. What’s it like running your own business and store? How does that fit into what seems like an already packed schedule?
It is busy, but… the moment you let it consume you in a way that is stressful, you’ll view it as stressful. I view the Soda Parlor as a very fun project. We went through a lot of stress getting it made, but where it fits in is… that next step where I can just hang out with people, and break down that Internet barrier. So people can actually know me and don’t have to take a picture with me. We first tried to do this whole idea on the pizza party tour, but it failed.
Which is something else I wanted to ask you about. In your documentary about the tour, you mention how you felt like you were failing because the huge turnout left people waiting in line for hours, to the point that one of the venues you rented closed down and you had to move the party to the parking lot in order to meet everyone. How has gaining such a large audience affected the way you work?
It’s so weird because, in the scheme of YouTube, I don’t have a big audience. I’m actually very, very low on the totem pole. When people think of a big audience, it’s like a million subscribers. And there are people on there that have 13 million. But to me, what I have right now is ginormous. How do you meet all of those people? You can’t. That was why I wanted to do a soda parlor, because eventually – I’ve come to realize this – people will keep coming back to hang out and help at my events, and after I’ve met them several times, they just become one of the guys, and they think of me as a normal person, which is exactly what I want. Then it becomes more manageable, because less and less people come up and ask me for a picture or have me call their friends.
But the pizza party tour was definitely a learning experience. We didn’t know what it was going to be – all we knew was that we had to order a lot of pizza, and then we hoped everything would work out. What we discovered, though, is that whatever you set as your RSVP max – you’re going to end up having at least double or triple that. Which means people are going to be waiting. So what do you do?
We learned that you have to make sure the heart of every event is the line. The line has to be taken care of at all times, by any means necessary. A lot of people do events and just forget about the line – you can’t do that. The line is the pulse of everything. The moment someone becomes sad or frustrated or asks “Why am I waiting in line?” – the entire thing goes south. So I always have someone out there giving away gifts, chatting people up, taking pictures, whatever. Because if you can keep the line happy and manageable and show how grateful you are, you can do whatever you want.
Do you mind taking pictures or whatever at this point?
Oh no! I’ve done every single thing in the book, man. If they come up and ask me for an autograph, or a picture, or want me to call their friends or make a video – I’ll do it every single time. Hands down. Even if I’m exhausted after a 13 hour day. If they want me to do Danger Legs, I will do Danger Legs. Because they’ve done so much for me, and I know this one little thing will mean so much to them – so I have no problem with any of it.
At what point could you just focus on your projects and survive financially?
That actually took a long time. It could have happened sooner, but I decided from the beginning to not do anything commercial with my videos and to say no to sponsorships. I decided to go the slow way, which meant building up the apparel line. I want to say that since about 2012 I’ve been okay, so it hasn’t been that long [laughs].
What were you doing before that?
I was working at a place called Avionic Specialists Incorporated. I refurbished avionic instrument covers that go on airplanes. That job was actually the reason I’ve been able to do what I want to do, because the bosses were so cool. They understood if I had to take a day off for a project or a shoot. I just worked so hard for them that I guess they thought I was a good guy. They let me do whatever. It was full-time, but then I took it to part-time, and finally I was just freelancing other projects until I became self-sufficient.
How’d it feel when you finally got there?
Amazing. It’s really cool, but it’s also a ton of work. So much work. And there are still points where it’s really tough financially. But we push through. This past year was almost crippling trying to get the Soda Parlor running. But I’ll save that for the documentary.
How do you like the new whip? (For those that don’t know, Olan’s car was recently totaled in a crash, but a few dedicated fans started crowdfunding pages in order to raise enough money to help him purchase another car. The most successful was Crystal Monatlvo’s Indiegogo, which raised over $12,000).
The new whip? What do you mean?
The would be slang for car [laughs].[laughs] Fantastic, actually. That was such a weird experience, and something I hope never happens again. I didn’t know how to handle that situation. As you know, I got in a car wreck. The insurance company still hasn’t gotten in contact with the girl who hit me. I just got a call today actually, and the agent handling everything said they’re about to send people to her door. They just want to talk to her but she will not talk to them, and they can’t move forward with reimbursement without hearing from her first. So that’s the current situation.
Other than that, people, as you saw, have been overwhelmingly positive, though there was one negative comment from someone who thought I was just trying to make money – and that hurt. Because no matter what I did in this situation, someone wasn’t going to be happy. Either I accept the generosity and take the money and use it for good and risk having someone accuse me of moneygrubbing, or I say no and disappoint so, so many people who genuinely wanted to help out. So what could I do?
What I was most scared of, though – and I’ve seen it before – is that someone will start a campaign, collect all of this money for “donations,” and then keep it. I’ve seen this happen countless times. It’s not a new thing. They’ll take an occurrence – something bad that’s happened, where people will naturally want to help out – and take advantage of everyone’s generosity.
So this girl Crystal was posting on my latest video saying she had started a campaign, and I was like oh no – ‘cause before her comment, I had already said please don’t do anything like this. So then I said I appreciated the gesture but please don’t continue with this. But then I started seeing that multiple people were starting campaigns. There was a GoFundMe, an Indiegogo. There could have been more, but those are the only two I saw. And they both had money. The GoFundMe was smaller and more obscure, so I wasn’t too worried. But the Indiegogo was already picking up – it had like $200 in 10 minutes. So I knew I had to say something again right away, because if it got up to $10,000 and those people were somehow scammed out of all that money – I don’t even want to imagine what would follow. And it was flexible funding! I would not have said a word if it was fixed funding, not a word. Because with fixed funding, if the goal isn’t met, nobody gets paid, meaning I could just let it fizzle out.
So was it more that you don’t want someone to take advantage of your fans or that you didn’t want a handout?
It was both. I didn’t want someone taking advantage of the situation, but I also knew I was going to get the insurance money, since it was the other driver’s fault. I didn’t know when I was going to get it – I still don’t – but it’s her fault and eventually I’m going to get it. I was completely fine with that, because that’s life. Why should I be any different? But I saw what was happening and I knew I had to say something about it. So I posted the link and said don’t donate to this. I go to bed and wake up and it’s like $5,000. I had no idea what to do. This is not a situation everyone goes through. But I came to realize that it was something where people genuinely wanted to help, and it would be more upsetting if I didn’t accept it. So I said I would accept what’s been raised so far, but don’t donate anymore. Go to sleep and wake up the next day and the $10,000 goal was met, and then some. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there and tried to come up with a video to thank people, but I kept bawling my eyes out each time. So I took a snapshot to show people: Hey, I tried to do a video and it’s not working, but thank you!
Then, like I said, there was one nasty comment on my Facebook in response to that, which said something like, “Just like the rest of ‘em. Always moneygrubbing.” This person and I emailed back and forth, and I tried to be as patient and transparent with her as possible, but it quickly became clear that she was going to view me as the exact thing I was trying to avoid, no matter what I said. Thing is, she’s older and very much unfamiliar with how crowdsourcing works, so it’s easy for her to jump to a conclusion. But I’m actually really glad she messaged me, because it showed me that no matter what I do in life, somebody is not going to like something I do. Then, all you can do is kill ‘em with kindness.
And for my last question, I’ve got to know: did you ever get to ride the jet skis in Cabo?
Oh yeah. I got to ride the jet skis. In Cabo.
Interview by Justin Davis. Cast him as an actor in your awesome projects via Twitter @yeahjustindavis.