Do YouTubers like Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart hold the future of independent film?

When producer Michael Goldfine set out to make the feature film Camp Takota, which will be available for download on February 14th, the first thing he knew that the traditional independent film model wouldn’t be the right approach.

“I had a story I wanted to tell about summer camp — but I wanted to find a new way to bypass the traditional ways of making a movie, involving fans of every step of the way,” said Goldfine in a phone interview. What Takota is poised to be is a new example in how, even with some set-backs, a combination of digital distribution and a socially-savvy cast is evolving the filmmaking model.

Casting the right cast

Knowing that an unconventional digital production strategy would mean that he’d have to draw on the online popularity of the talent involved, Goldfine (whose credits include producing last summer’s box office hit Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain and 85 episodes of the show Extra) set out to find actors that met that qualification.

The word “actors” is key: “I was looking for talent that could act — that was important, because I wanted to make a real movie. And [the film’s stars] can really act.”

The first official Takota cast member Goldfine signed up was Hannah Hart (no relation to Kevin), whose legend had already spread beyond her My Drunk Kitchen persona thanks to, among other things, a international live tour and series documenting said live tour.

Hart connected Goldfine to frequent collaborator and web video star Grace Helbig, who also signed up — and also told Goldfine: “If you want to do a camp movie, you should talk to Mamrie.”

The inspiration for Camp Takota came from a fairly obvious source — Goldfine’s own experiences attending summer camp. But when he began approaching his potential cast, he didn’t have a script — just an idea for the story.

Meanwhile, Mamrie Hart (known initially for her YouTube (s GOOG) channel You Deserve A Drink, and no relation to Hannah), also had profound memories of her time at camp. When they met, she and Goldfine ended up combining their own camp stories; that’s how Mamrie ended up co-writing the film.

(Goldfine shares credit with Mamrie on the story, while Lydia Genner co-wrote the actual script — the film is directed by equally-established YouTubers The Brothers Riedell.)

It’s a chain of events born by the fact that these three women, like many within the YouTube community, are personal friends as well as frequent collaborators, working together on various projects. The personal connection proved to be a boon to the filmmaking process. “That helps it a lot,” Goldfine said. “There’s chemistry in the filmmaking, and it obviously helps in the interactions with the audiences — you see that when you see them online.”



Initially, the plan was for Takota to be distributed by content distribution platform Chill — a plan that came apart when the service shut down last fall.

According to Goldfine, Chill’s involvement with Takota came while they were in production last summer — the company approached the Takota team and offered to serve as a distribution platform for the film. Once they partnered up, Chill also lent promotional support, including the distribution of behind-the-scenes videos from the production and a booth at Vidcon 2013.

While Chill officially went out of business in December, returning the distribution rights and leaving Takota without an official distribution platform, Goldfine said that he was never worried about finding a new home for the film: “We were just going to self-distribute from the beginning,” he said. It was only after they were approached by Chill that plans changed.

Takota‘s release is now being handled by a partnership with VHX, which has become a distribution powerhouse since opening up its services to independent films. “We wanted to keep it simple, and VHX was the answer,” Goldfine said.

Fan Engagement

While many VHX-distributed products, Takota‘s pre-release includes a crowdfunding-esque offer of “perks” for devoted fans to purchase. The “care packages” were a part of the Takota strategy from the beginning, and include everything from the film itself, a variety of t-shirts and interaction with stars Hart, Hart and Helbig.

Perks also include voicemail messages, Google+ Hangouts and personalized thank-you videos (that last one goes for $300).  According to a release, care package sales have already made over $50,000. Which isn’t too bad, especially given the fact that Goldfine put the budget for Takota at that of a standard low-budget feature film, except “maybe a little cheaper.”

What many of the care packages have in common is enabling engagement with fans, making them feel like a part of the process — something that’s happened during the entirety of the Camp Takota production process.

It comes from the same social engagement that made Goldfine approach the actors. “[Hart, Hart and Helbig] are so good to their fans and we’re incredibly respectful of that. We’re so connected with them right now — we constantly have this conversation with them, like we’ve never seen before.”