How YouTube Made a Star Out of This Super-Smart Film Critic

Lindsay Ellis is just about ready to start shooting a video in her personal studio—aka a tiny second-floor room in Ellis’ western Los Angeles home—and the 34-year-old writer and YouTube essayist is making some final preparations. She gently repositions a couple of pet tortoises resting in a tank nearby, so they won’t noisily thunk their heads against the wall mid-shoot. Then she heads to a shelf stocked with Transformers of varying sizes, colors, and allegiances.

“Which Starscream should I use?” she asks, scanning her collection. She eventually selects a handful of figures, including miniature-sized versions of Starscream and Windblade that recently appeared on her wedding cake, and carries them back to her desk.

If you’ve seen any of Ellis’ videos on YouTube, where she has more than half a million subscribers, you’re no doubt aware of her love for all things robots-in-disguise-related. A Transformer sometimes appears in the background as she narrates one of her thoughtful, deeply researched film-criticism essays, which have included such entries as “The Ideology of the First Order” and “The Death of the Hollywood Movie Musical."

And for the past two years, she’s been slowly rolling out The Whole Plate, a series that deconstructs the ear-drum-splitting mayhem of the Transformers franchise through various academic lenses: Feminism. Marxism. Auteur theory. (There’s even an entry titled “Queering Michael Bay.") Together, Ellis’ Whole Plate videos have earned nearly 4 million views on YouTube—a remarkable tally, considering that some of the platform’s most popular film-criticism genres appear to be “Dudes Still Yelling ’Bout Porgs” or “I Just Noticed Wes Anderson’s Fonts, and I Have Some Thoughts (Part 1 of 18).”

Ellis’ deftly edited essays are in a genre all their own. She rarely focuses on the big-name new releases of the moment. And she doesn’t care much for what she calls “thing-bad” videos, in which someone piles on the bile toward a beloved film. Instead, she approaches movies, even the ones she doesn’t especially love, with a combination of scholarly rigor, film-history acumen, and reliable wryness.

Watching her clips is like taking a Screen Aesthetics 101 class with a cool professor, and then hanging out at the campus coffee shop afterward, listening in as she riffs about, say, the significance of a giant robot peeing on John Turturro. Or the complicated blandness of Disney’s Pocahontas. Or the stilted rebelliousness of 2005’s Rent adaptation. “The things I think most about,” Ellis says, “are things that are deeply flawed but have this really interesting potential.”

The video Ellis is finishing up on this winter morning finds her digging into both the 2005 remake of War of the Worlds and 1996’s alien-invasion smash Independence Day (a movie Ellis describes as “dumb as a bag of rocks” yet nonetheless loves). Her home-studio setup consists of a single digital camera, some minimal lighting and sound equipment, and a boxy, iPhone-controlled teleprompter.

Once they’re ready to go, Ellis puts on her glasses, bats her shoulder-length black hair away from her eyes, and digs into the movies’ greater cultural contexts. The finished product, which will easily earn a half-million views, is likely the only YouTube clip to ever jam together discussion of “textual metaphors” with footage from Mac and Me.

Among Ellis’ filmic obsessions: Transformers.

Jabari Jacobs

Ellis has been producing videos for more than a decade, but only recently have elaborate essays like "Independence Day vs. War of the Worlds" become her full-time job. “I spent most of my years as an internet person half-assing and not caring,” she says. “And it was only after I turned 30 that I started reevaluating that.” In 2018 she produced more than a dozen videos for YouTube, which hosts hundreds of visual critics and essayists who smartly cover every pop-culture medium imaginable—pop music, video games, YA—with a mix of humor, high-grade production values, and first-person intimacy.

Ellis has recently emerged as one of the medium’s breakout stars. She earns more than $10,000 a month on Patreon, the crowdfunding site that’s her primary source of revenue. It helps pay for a small staff of mostly part-time employees and allows her to turn out video series like last year’s three-part deep-dive into the Hobbit trilogy, which cost nearly $20,000. Ellis and some of her team went to New Zealand as part of the production, which she feared her supporters would find excessive; instead, the videos gave her the biggest Patreon boost ever. And in the last year, the number of her YouTube subscribers and Twitter followers has doubled.

“As a culture, we need her voice,” says author and longtime internet creator Hank Green. “She makes you think about content and storytelling in a new way. You see videos by Lindsay that are 45 minutes long getting a million views, and that’s because her insight is good.”

That insight isn’t reserved strictly for movies. Last September, Ellis released a 36-minute essay titled “YouTube: Manufacturing Authenticity (for Fun and Profit!).” She’d come up with the idea after getting high, watching a few cake-making YouTube shows with her friends, and realizing how much effort the hosts were putting into convincing their fans how “real” they were. The resulting video, like all of her work, was funny and incisive—a compact history of YouTube's evolution, told in barely half an hour.

It was also sneakily personal. At one point, Ellis stares directly at the camera while discussing the emotional toll involved with Being Extremely Online. The demands put on YouTube creators—the never-ending churn of new material, the 24-hour online scrutiny, the strain of maintaining what Ellis describes as “on-brand affect”—invariably spill over into the video-makers’ IRL existences, a fact Ellis knows all too well.

The “Manufacturing Authenticity” video was released right after she experienced a brutal, coordinated online harassment campaign—the worst she’s ever endured. It led to her briefly considering taking a step back from her videos, just as her work was reaching its widest audience yet. And it made her all the more protective of her personal intel—where she lives and with whom—to avoid further harassment. “There would be days where I would think, ‘How do I extract myself from my own life? Because I can't handle this anymore,’” she says. “But more often, I would be just like, ‘How do I fix this? How do I learn to live with this?’”

Ellis has always strived to find the promise in the imperfect. Yet no phenomenon she’s tackled has proved to be quite as alluring, while also so fundamentally damaged, as the internet itself.

Ellis grew up in Johnson City, Tennessee, a small town where her main entertainment options included a Blockbuster and a chain theater. She largely engaged with pop culture via the internet, which is how she solidified one of her earliest and most crucial obsessions: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s schmaltz-lacquered stage hit The Phantom of the Opera.

As a teenager, Ellis signed up for a local Christian youth group for the sole purpose of scamming her way into a field trip its members were taking to New York City. ”I did not find Jesus,” she says of the trek, “but I did find the original Broadway cast recording of The Phantom of the Opera at the Virgin Megastore.”

She listened to the album for the entire bus ride back, and then took to Yahoo to find more Phantom, seeking out whatever she could find of the show’s live performances and eventually writing Phantom-inspired stories for fanfiction.net. All that led to her meeting Angelina Meehan, a Delaware teen (and fellow fan-fiction scribe) who shared many of Ellis’ pursuits.

This was in the early days of the internet, a time when bonding over shared interests online “was this special thing that no one could really profane,” Meehan says. “We would write stupid stories just to make one another laugh. Over the next couple of years, we joked that we had a really intense, Heavenly Creatures–like friendship where we’d find different things that we liked: We had a Lord of the Rings phase. We had a Harry Potter phase.”

The various versions of Phantom—including a later big-screen adaptation directed by schlockteur Joel Schumacher—became an ideal vehicle for Ellis’ emerging big-picture-thinking skills. Here was an intoxicating yet oh-so-iffy property she could think of fondly and critically: As a piece of ridiculous but affecting art, as a culture-shifting smash success, even as an metaphor for her own small-town adolescence. “When I was a teenager,” she says, “I just so deeply empathized with the Phantom. I was like, He understands my pain.”

She laughs, then notes: “All my friends were kind of the same way. That's why Phantom appeals to teenagers. Watching it as an adult now, it's just such a trash-fire of a franchise. But I love it.”

Ellis moved to Manhattan to attend New York University in 2003, where she studied film history and film theory, earning a degree in cinema studies, which helped her land a few part-time video-editing gigs. But not long after leaving school, the economy was bottoming out, prompting Ellis to enroll in an MFA program in film and television production at the University of Southern California.

“The things I think most about,” Ellis says, “are things that are deeply flawed but have this really interesting potential.”

Jabari Jacobs

The same week she sent in her application she entered an online contest to be the host and titular star of The Nostalgia Chick, a web-video series—based on the popular digital show The Nostalgia Critic—that would focus on what was described as “nostalgic girl shows and movies.”

At the time, YouTube was just a few years old and only one of several online-video hubs, along with such now-defunct platforms as Revver, Blip, and Google Video. But the Nostalgia Critic videos, in which host Doug Walker comically reexamined films like Mortal Kombat and Space Jam, had already found a devoted online audience. Ellis submitted a video review of herself talking about Pocahontas and won. She made her debut as Nostalgia Chick that fall, sometimes donning a bow tie or lens-free glasses to discuss movies like Hocus Pocus and Spice World.

Those videos gave Ellis a sizable presence in the slowly growing circuit of online, video-focused movie critics. But she struggled to fit into the pre-baked Nostalgia Chick persona. Part of the job was to dissect shows like Rainbow Brite—the kind of series Ellis hadn’t even watched growing up.

And the role required a level of onscreen smart-aleckness that often obscured her smarts. “There have always been movie reviewers whose central bent is ‘I am confused by everything!’" says culture critic Dan Olson, a friend of Ellis and a former Channel Awesome contributor. “Anything that’s even remotely a plot twist forces them to ham it up. But Lindsay knows what she was talking about, so whenever she would fall into that shtick, it was disappointing: ‘Oh, you can do better.’”

Ellis would eventually get rid of the glasses and bow tie and make more than a hundred Nostalgia Chick videos. But she was distracted by grad school, which she says hurt the quality of her videos and affected her work ethic. (She says she was almost let go multiple times.) And she became unhappy with the management at Channel Awesome, which she says had a “low-key atmosphere of misogyny.” (The company did not respond to messages sent to its official website and Facebook page seeking comment.) “It was just not a healthy place to be,” Ellis says. “But at the time, I was like, ‘This is what I deserve, because I'm not good at anything.’”

Those feelings of low self-worth could be compounded by being on the web. In the years since Ellis had first logged on to share her goofy Phantom fiction, the internet had grown far more venomous. If one of her videos irked Channel Awesome’s vocal, largely male audience, they’d respond with cruel comments; one man even tracked down Ellis’ home address and sent her threatening messages, prompting her to contact police in New York City, where she and her stalker were both living at the time. (According to Ellis, NYPD did not pursue an arrest, citing the statute of limitations and other technicalities.) At the time, online harassment “was like a miasma that had not been given form yet,” Ellis says. “It was basically an aimless toxicity that was definitely there but didn’t really have direction.”

She left Channel Awesome in late 2014. By then, she’d built up enough of a following that she eventually began producing new videos while supporting herself with a few temporary editing jobs. At the time, YouTube-based movie criticism was undergoing a dramatic growth spurt, thanks in part to the introduction of Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting, a series of astute, patient, visually assured film essays that would eventually pull in tens of millions of views and help push the medium past its ranting-rando-with-a-camera phase.

Ellis’ new videos, which could take months to write and produce, would prove to be just as evolved. They were much longer than her Nostalgia Chick offerings and deeper, too. In April 2016, she and Meehan—who would soon become her first employee—collaborated on what would become one of Ellis’ breakthrough efforts.

Over the course of 40 minutes, some of which she spends chugging from a prop booze-bottle, Ellis uses a single film to thread together lessons on editing, cinematography, genre, and film history. It’s a sharply structured yet breezy treatise, one that references everything from John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth to Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast. It would eventually hit the 1-million mark—a deeply personal victory, considering its titular subject: “Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera: a Video Essay."

One late afternoon in November, Ellis is at a crowded events space in downtown Los Angeles, where several chipper twenty- and thirtysomethings had gathered for the third annual PatreCon, a three-day event put on by the crowdfunding site whose users are key financiers of the current critical-essay boom.

Many of YouTube’s most popular critical voices—from the witheringly insightful social-political thinker ContraPoints to the film-loving weirdos at Red Letter Media—have giant followings on Patreon, where supporters back creators by pledging regular donations. Ellis currently has 6,000 donors on the site, which makes up more than half of her income, with the rest largely coming from YouTube ad revenue and sponsorships.

Ellis is at PatreCon for a group Q&A titled “You Can’t Please Everybody,” about creators dealing with online criticism. Ellis is, by now, an expert witness. Just a few months earlier, in August, a year-old tweet in which she joked about “white genocide”—a neo-Nazi conspiracy theory—was exhumed, leading to a coordinated harassment campaign against her.

Soon, she was flooded with threatening messages, the attackers' tenor and tenacity "so much worse" than what she’d experienced during her Channel Awesome days. In the years after Gamergate, Ellis’ harassers had learned to mobilize themselves quickly, and the onslaught had “a sense of direction," she says. "It became a lot more coordinated.”

Some of her assailants tried to shame Ellis for a years-old documentary chronicling her experiences with abortion; others circulated news of her arrest for public intoxication in 2017, when she was attending a family member’s bachelorette party. And numerous angry calls were made to various affiliates of PBS, which produces Ellis’ book-focused web-video series "It's Lit."

The network, Ellis says, stood by her. But having “6,000 Nazis trying to get me fired” put her “on the verge of a complete mental breakdown.” (It did not help, she notes, that a years-long effort to sell a novel had stalled out right before the attacks began.) There was a lot of crying and a lot of drinking. “It is very, very hard to watch Lindsay deal with it,” Meehan says. “The personality she presents is acerbic and blunt—and those parts of her are there. But at the end of the day, she’s a very sensitive and caring person.”

You can’t get used to such attacks. “It's not the first time something like that's happened to me, even on that level,” she says. “And it’s not going to be the last. And knowing that means having to live in constant fear.” Even Green—who has been an online presence for more than a decade and has seen his share of pile-ons—is surprised by the vitriol Ellis receives. “The internet right now is existing in a ‘gotcha’ space, where people are trying to win points against the opposition,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Who cares if human beings get in the way?’”

Like other harassment campaigns Ellis has endured, the incident last summer came without warning. Some of her harassers, she suspects, have simply disliked her since her Channel Awesome days. Others target her because she’s politically progressive and because she was a vocal supporter of James Gunn when he was fired by Disney after his own old Tweets were unearthed. But it’s not necessarily what Ellis says online or in her videos that sets off her attackers. Some, she says, are simply enraged that she’s saying anything at all. “They don’t like women talking,” Ellis says.

And so, not long before the conference winds down for the day, Ellis takes to the small PatreCon stage, wearing jeans and a black Transformers T-shirt. She talks about the way she has self-censored her videos in the past to avoid topics that might set people off. She points out the way some harassers try to bait her into Twitter feuds with disingenuous arguments. And she notes that there’s no support system set up to help people who deal with such problems on an hourly basis. Twenty years ago, Ellis lived very publicly, and very happily, online. Now, she tells the crowd, “I have had to hermetically seal myself off more and more.”

A few months after PatreCon, Ellis is touring a 1,452-square-foot, unfinished office space facing a mellow suburban street not far from her home. She’s accompanied by the filmmaker David McCracken, whom Ellis has recently hired as a part-time business and production manager, as well as a contractor. The place is bare, save for a desk covered in some drop cloths and cans of paint. As they walk from room to room, Ellis maps out how she wants it all to look when she moves in this spring.

There’ll be a fully equipped film studio, a sound-proofed recording area, and a window-facing open area in which Ellis and a few other creators she knows can set up their desks and work. At least, that’s the plan: Ellis still has numerous permits to secure, and today’s construction quote will be the third estimate she’s received so far. “It’s really tiring,” she says of the process. “The last figure we got was about as much as a semester at USC—if you stay at the nicest dorm.”

Ellis doesn’t disclose her revenue from her YouTube operation but says that it’s not profitable yet. Besides the the cost of producing videos, she also pays benefits for her team of four. They help with her onscreen work as well the behind-the-scenes tasks. But like many popular YouTube creators, Ellis still spends nearly as much time dealing with managerial duties as she does conceptualizing, shooting, and editing. And she has to do all of this while planning her next few videos.

The ongoing output is necessary to keep her in good standing with not only her viewers but also YouTube’s own impossible-to-understand algorithms. “It's a recipe for burnout,” says Olson, who hosts the culture-surveying YouTube series Folding Ideas. “If you don’t have a constant stream, you disappear. That’s the state of the attention economy. And it’s in no way limited to YouTube.”

Ellis says she’s considered quitting at times, but she doesn’t want to jeopardize the livelihood of her employees, many of whom she has known since her fanfiction.net days. (“Too many people depend on me,” she says.) Instead, she plans to take a brief hiatus to sort out her future office space and to provide maternity leave to two of her employees.

But she has several essay ideas in development: A piece on Aladdin as well as one on Hamilton. She also wants to get to work on a video she’s been thinking about for months, one that will connect the work of urban planner Robert Moses with the 1988 hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (It will all make sense when you see it).

None of this would ever have seemed possible back in the early days of her video career. “I always thought of YouTube as this super-finite thing where trends ebb and flow,” she says. “I also thought, ‘You’re a woman, and you’re in your thirties—and women in their thirties can’t be on YouTube.’”

Ellis has been the target of online harassment. Now she says, "I figure I may as well get ahead of it."

Jabari Jacobs

That was a few years ago. This morning, her voice is echoing off the walls of what she hopes will be her future headquarters. After she leaves here, she’ll have a quick phone call with her book agent in New York—the latest step in a process that will end with her selling a novel to St. Martin’s Press just a few weeks later. (The book, which for now is called Untitled First Contact Novel, is due out next year.)

The happy news of the book deal, and the increased distance from last August’s unpleasantness, has made Ellis reconsider just how hermetically sealed-off she really wants to be. It was only a few months ago that she was trying to keep key information about her life a secret, worried that revealing it would just lead to doxxing and further harassment.

Now, Ellis says, she no longer wants to extract herself from her own life—especially now, while she's very much enjoying it. “You know what? Fuck it,” she says. “I'm really sick of this being a game, of waiting for these people to figure it out, because it’s going to happen. So I figure I may as well get ahead of it.”

And so that “western Los Angeles” town in which she resides? She’s now OK with letting you know it’s Long Beach. Those figures on her wedding cake? The Starscream represented Lindsay, and Windblade was for her husband, Nick. He apparently has a big Transformers collection, too. Maybe someday Lindsay Ellis will make a video about it.


Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/how-youtube-made-a-star-out-of-this-super-smart-film-critic/

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