Rage Against the Machinima

As YouTube becomes increasingly wealthy, its stars and the networks that contract with them battle for money and creative control.

The tweet was followed by another, two minutes later: "@MakerStudios holding a YouTuber's AdSense account hostage after you promised to sign it back over is bad for your business."

The public spat was particularly ironic since Maker Studios positions itself publicly as the network for YouTube stars, founded by YouTube stars. Among them is LisaNova (Lisa Donovan), who parlayed her YouTube fame into a brief stint on MadTV before starting the network with fellow YouTube stars Danny Diamond (her fiancé, Danny Zappin) and Thebdonski (her brother, Ben Donovan).

The trio has said that it sees Maker as the United Artists of YouTube — akin to the studio founded by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and other Hollywood stars in defiance of the controlling studio system. Zappin is fond of telling the story of how Maker helped move YouTube star ShayCarl and his family to Southern California from Idaho so he could be part of their fledgling company.

Jesse Lenz
A screencap of the Machinima website.
A screencap of the Machinima website.

For a few years, Ray William Johnson was part of the Maker family, too. Johnson, 31, launched his YouTube channel in 2008, and dropped out of Columbia University shortly thereafter. For the last four years, he's been producing videos pretty much daily.

Signs that there might be trouble between Johnson and the studio first emerged in October, when Johnson casually announced in one of his daily videos that his company, Equals Three, was in the process of leaving Maker.

"What's up guys, you're going to notice a few things are different," he tells viewers, standing in front of the same comic book panel — patterned backdrop he typically uses when shooting. "I'm filming this episode from my apartment."

In the future, Johnson explained, he would no longer be part of the Maker network. He didn't go into detail, though — the rest of the video is spent, like most of his videos, cracking wise about viral videos.

After Johnson's video was uploaded to the site, a representative for Maker released a statement to the website New Media Rockstars, insisting that Johnson was still part of the Maker network but that, "with the recent decline in viewership on [Johnson's channel], it made sense for him to go back to producing the show himself."

Johnson shot back, telling the same reporter that he was leaving not because of ratings but because Maker had suddenly demanded an ownership stake in his company.

After that, both sides went quiet for a little while. Until, that is, December, when Johnson issued those angry tweets — and then explained in an email to L.A. Weekly and other outlets why he finally was speaking out against Maker.

"I feel that I have a responsibility to myself and to the YouTube community to stand up to them and their rather thuggish tactics," he wrote. "At the end of the day, YouTube-based networks are built around exploiting YouTube channels for profit."

Maker, he says, wanted 40 percent of his channel's revenue after production costs, and half of the show's intellectual property in perpetuity.

"They wanted to own 50 percent of the intellectual property of Equals Three for the rest of eternity and weren't offering much in return," Johnson explained.

He wasn't biting.

"Negotiations quickly became a bizarre pissing contest between the heads at Maker Studios and myself. I wouldn't hand over my intellectual property, and they wouldn't stop aggressively trying to get me to sign it over to them," he wrote.

The company struck back. According to Johnson, the network shut down production on his album, which had been under way for eight months at Maker's Culver City studio, and, a day later, halted production on his 4-year-old show.

After negotiations faltered, Johnson began recording episodes first at his apartment, and later at Papertown Studios in L.A. But two months after leaving Maker Studios, he alleges, the company still hasn't turned his AdSense account back over to him.

In the email he provided to the Weekly and other media outlets, Johnson didn't just throw down about his contract. He got personal.

Johnson wrote that Maker CEO Danny Zappin had gotten drunk and confessed to being a convicted felon. (In a letter sent to Maker's partners a few days later, Zappin acknowledged that he'd been convicted of felony drug possession 12 years prior.) He didn't know about Zappin's conviction before he signed with Maker, Johnson wrote, suggesting it might have affected his decision to join the company.

A few hours after Johnson first took the dispute to Twitter, he tweeted again. This tweet featured an Instagram of an iMessage that Johnson claims to have received from Zappin. It read "You're [sic] lack of integrity and character are sad. Fuck You. Prepare for war ... bitch."

Former Maker Studios partner Shane Dawson, who left the studio in 2009, tweeted at Johnson, "i got the same text 3 years ago hahhahahaa oh youtubeee."

Maker Studios declined to comment the status of Johnson's AdSense account. And since his first email, Johnson has declined to provide any additional information. Instead, a representative for the star emailed to say, "He has  been advised by his attorney to not give any more interviews until the issue with Maker has been resolved."

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