Cody and Marcus Johns always knew they'd be entertainers. The South Florida natives were writing, filming, and acting in their own minimovies before the eldest brother was 10. They would shoot the scenes sequentially on their dad's Hi8 camera, and though they'd move on to higher production roles before childhood was over, Cody starred in a string of commercials and Marcus had a role in The Punisher. It was this low-tech experience that would lead to each brother's big break.
“When Vine came out, it was just easy for us,” Marcus says. “We just got on and crushed the videos right out of the gate.”
Vine is the popular social media app that confused many people over the age of 25 when it debuted in 2013. It allows users to create and share six-second, looping video clips. Head-scratchers wondered what one could possibly say in six seconds, but users such as the Johns saw immediate potential.
“The number one thing is relatability, because that's the only reason someone will watch you,” says Marcus, now 22 years old. “Comedy is always funny, because you can draw that and apply it to your life. It's like, 'Oh my God, I've dealt with that.'”
Since creating individual accounts in spring of 2013, the Johns brothers have accumulated more than 10 million followers and 3 billion loops between them, easily clearing 1 billion each. They've parlayed that success into lucrative sponsorship deals, hosting gigs at the Oscars and MTV VMA red carpets, trips to Paris, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to do things like take weightless flights.
Their latest project is a web- and app-based road-trip-style reality series called HeyUSAx on YouTube and the Go90 app produced by Astronauts Wanted (a joint-venture between Judy McGrath, former CEO and chairperson of MTV, and Sony Music Entertainment). It's their grandest adventure to date — all because Generation Z is absolutely hooked on the brothers' witty, relatable loops.
Marcus was one of the first stars to emerge from the fledgling app, gaining thousands of followers in a matter of months. “He struck a nerve with people doing these comedy bits,” says Cody, age 26. “At the time, he was the youngest creator on the platform making some news. Marcus found very, very quick success and a following right away. I was on the West Coast not taking it as seriously but watching it from a business perspective, thinking of ways I could help us both out.”
Cody did eventually take the platform seriously, amassing a grand following of his own, but he also helped found the company Niche as a means to nab brand deals for content creators, like himself and Marcus, across all platforms, ensuring that views translate to revenue and viable career options.
“We're actors first, and that’s what it's been from the beginning,” Cody says. “This is not something that we were just like, 'Oh, Vine happened for us, we got a little lucky, let's turn it into something' – nah. Whether Vine happened or not, Marcus and I would have been pursuing this lane.”
Ever since the Hi8 days, the brothers have developed their entertainment personas on and off the screen. They consider themselves “jacks of all trades.” Cody is a musician and writer who fights to make time for recording and screenwriting between social media updates. He went to film school at Florida State University and dreams of directing his own films some day.
“I've always loved telling stories,” he says. “I think it was just a natural step to what we're doing now, and here we are filming a TV show.”
Professional social media star might sound like money for nothing, but the Johns brothers know it's far from easy. Vine clips may not be Scorsese-level productions, but a single clip can take anywhere from four to five hours to get right. It used to be that users had to create their scenes frame by frame, which meant if anything went wrong, they had to start the whole sequence over again. Vine has since changed its format to allow pre-edited uploads, but that just means productions have become more complex.
There's also Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts that must be tended to not just once a week, but every day — constantly.
“You say goodnight on Twitter, and then the first thing you do when you wake up is say good morning on Twitter,” Marcus says. “It’s a constant dialogue. I don’t even talk to my girlfriend that much.”
The brothers don't always work together. Each one has his own dreams and side gigs, but fans always love it when the two cross paths. HeyUSAx is an interactive reality show starring the bros on a cross-country road trip jam-packed with extreme sports and healthy amounts of witticism. Fans help producers choose where the brothers go and what they do. The catch is, they don't have any idea what's happening before they get there.
“Looking back at the footage, we're like, 'How were we able to do that?'” Cody laughs.
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“I would say that an adventure-seeker, a thrill-seeker, applies to not only stunts or traveling but all aspects of life,” Marcus adds. “I'm an adventure-seeker, Cody is an adventure-seeker, and we love that thrill of just putting yourself out on a limb and saying, 'I don't know what's going to happen next,' and that’s what making videos online is like... People may love this video, but that’s the million-dollar question: Is it going to do well?”
Even as they travel the country filming, bridge-jumping, kickboxing, or whatever, they still have to maintain their socials, because Vine and the internet never sleep, and you're only as relevant as your last update. It's a hard life, but it's the life they chose, and they wouldn't have it any other way.
“I was telling Marcus, it's like that was our first breakout film,” Cody says. “It's cool to be able to continue to do Vine and not ever abandon it.”
The Johns Brothers on HeyUSAx
The Miami-filmed episode is now on YouTube. New episodes are uploaded every week. Visit youtube.com.