Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Burnie Burns and Matt Hullum, photo courtesy of Annie Ray

Burnie Burns and Matt Hullum, photo courtesy of Annie Ray

It might be the biggest online entertainment production house you’ve never heard of. Rooster Teeth celebrated its eleventh anniversary on April 1, and its much-loved series Red vs. Blue, which debuted in 2003, is now the longest-running American sci-fi show and has sold 1 million DVDs.

“Dr. Who [which is British] is still longer,” founder Matt Hullum concedes.

Today, Rooster Teeth has about 70 staff members for 30 ongoing web series, two podcasts, a merchandise store and a fan community with 1.7 million registered users. The company also runs the RTX gaming and internet conference, which is expected to bring 30,000 attendees to the Austin Convention Center in July.

Rooster Teeth’s audience is typically between ages 12-28, but viewership is getting older as the company ages. Historically, fans were 80 percent male but that’s also changing with the introduction of shows with female protagonists.

In a couple weeks, the company is leaving its south Austin building for a much bigger space at Austin Studios, and with the move comes plans for bigger productions including a live-action feature, though what form it will be released in is undetermined. It may come out, like Red vs. Blue, as a chaptered series, released in five-minute episodes.

“We’re not opposed to traditional media,” says Hullum. “We’re just not interested in using the Internet as a stepping stone to get there.”

Hullum met fellow founding partner Burnie Burns in college when they were both working at Texas Student Television. Hullum loved that there were hardly any gatekeepers at the station. The freedom of student TV was the first inkling of things to come.

Hullum went to Hollywood to work in film. Back in Texas, Burns sent Hullum the beginnings of Red vs. Blue. The project was “machinima.” It was created out of video game play with voiceover narration. The comedic series focuses on a civil war waged between two teams of soldiers (red and blue), and it uses footage from the first-person shooter Halo (since season 8, it also includes original animation). Today, it is one of the most prominent examples of machinima.

The show was an immediate Internet hit. Its creators didn’t have financial expectations for it until the second season premiered at the Lincoln Center in early 2004. Hullum said he figured just New Yorkers would show up, but fans from all over the world convened on the event.

Hullum moved back to Texas shortly after that. Initially, the operation was a handful of guys working out of a one-bedroom apartment in Buda, and it was just Red vs. Blue DVD sales and merchandise that made money, but soon requests for branded content started coming in from companies like videogame maker EA.

Today, the bulk of revenue stems from original content. Hullum says they try to make sure all products have at least two income streams and they don’t like to rely on unpredictable YouTube ad revenues. For example, the weekly Rooster Teeth podcast – where staff discuss movies, video games and upcoming projects – earns money through a premium subscription service for livestream access, integrated ads that air during the show, YouTube ads when the show becomes available there and merchandise. The podcast gets hundreds of thousands of YouTube views and a new episode of a Rooster Teeth show often sees 1 million or more.

To understand the fan loyalty that’s driven Rooster Teeth’s decade-long success, it’s helpful to talk to 25-year-old community manager Barbara Dunkelman. She began watching Red vs. Blue when she was 14, and from there Rooster Teeth became a major part of her social life. She’d go on the Rooster Teeth website before school, sometimes during school, and then at night often she’d stay online until three a.m interacting with other members, hosting chats, posting journals, commenting – about half the conversation was specifically about Rooster Teeth, she says, but the other half was just socializing.

“I was always kind of nerdy, interested in video games and that kind of culture,” she says. “And the Rooster Teeth community is extremely open and welcoming. Some of my best friends to this day are people I met on the website.”

Dunkelman was one of the most prominent community members, so when Rooster Teeth was looking for a community manager, they offered her the job and sponsored her work visa (she’s Canadian). In addition to marketing and social media, Dunkelman also plays the voice of Yang Xiao Long, one of the main characters on RWBY, the company’s Americanized anime, now one of its biggest shows. Soon, her character will have its own action figure. She’s gone from fan to having fans: She has 180,000 Twitter followers.

Rooster Teeth is fairly unique. Hullum says he knows or three- or four-man teams, but nothing that rivals the scale of Rooster Teeth for the kind of content it produces.

It helped that they were early movers. When the first Red vs. Blue episodes came out, YouTube didn’t exist. Much of their original website was devoted to explaining how to watch a video with a computer. If there’s a key to Rooster Teeth’s success – aside from creating entertainment that inspires fan devotion – it’s unwavering commitment to the online sphere. Hullum knew from experience how slow Hollywood works and how big studio money can dilute an original idea.

“We’ve seen so many groups all try to go for the movie or TV show, go the traditional route,” he says, “and in doing so abandon their original fan base, then when it doesn’t work out, it’s hard or impossible to rebuild.”