When Benny and Rafi Fine are interviewed, they say, interviewers are occasionally surprised to learn that they have 19 people working for them.
"It's not just a person sitting in a room, it's a full company," says Rafi, the younger of the two YouTube impresarios, during an interview taking place, naturally, over video chat.
At the moment, The Fine Brothers, who produce a number of YouTube series like the popular "Kids React," have a television show set to air on Nickelodeon, a pilot in development with the Sundance Channel, and another pilot in the works with Mark Summers of Double Dare fame. They are represented by WME, plan to finance other content on YouTube, and are in talks about a feature film. Last week, in a survey published by Variety that asked teens which celebrities they found most influential, the Fine Brothers came in second place. The top five were all YouTubers — Paul Walker, Jennifer Lawrence Katy Perry, and Steve Carell were the only mainstream Hollywood celebrities in the top ten.
In other words: not just two guys sitting in a basement.
After years of growing audiences on their own with Hollywood mostly looking on from a distance, YouTube stars like the Fine Brothers are not just preeminent celebrities for anyone not yet out of high school. They're veritable businesses, with both advertisers and movie studios increasingly interested in working with them.
The two brothers' YouTube empire has grown to 140 million total monthly views and over 12 million subscribers, according to the YouTube analytics platform OpenSlate. Their content varies — from a YouTube-funded mockumentary series about a music production company; to a series in which they rapidly spoil popular TV shows; to their signature "React" franchise, where a specific demographic, either kids, teens, or "elders" reacts to and tries to explain a piece of news or pop culture beloved by a different generation. Their standalone "React" channel, which launched in late July, already has over 1.5 million subscribers.
The duo grew up as Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, with hippie parents, they say, on a "spiritual journey" that culminated with their father becoming a rabbi. They got their start making home videos and radio shows, and eventually a feature film that made it into film festivals when they were in high school. After high school, Benny, now 33, spent seven years as a manager at DisneyWorld, and Rafi, now 31, got a film degree from Hunter College.
As online groups like The Lonely Island attracted attention, they turned to the internet as a ticket into Hollywood. They achieved what they call a good degree of virality "for 2004" with some of their videos, but this was pre-YouTube and the videos were uploaded and hosted on their own site, so that usually resulted in a site crash. Almost accidentally, they also dabbled in the now-hot concept of "transmedia" by creating professional MySpace characters to correspond with their videos. But Hollywood wasn't biting. While they were pioneers in online video, "We thought that had to do with getting your name out there in various ways," Rafi says. "We didn't think that it was going to become a business model."
Since then, of course things have changed — it has become a viable business model. After a stint leading production for Maker Studios, the multi-channel online video network that sold to Disney this year, the brothers started their production company in 2011 and have been growing their YouTube empire ever since.
In an earlier conversation, their manager, Max Benator, had described them as "the John Hughes of YouTube," and there is an argument for that: they blend sincerity with humor; and despite their timeliness, manage to appeal to a number of different generations. But when you talk about Hollywood parallels, they think bigger.
"The parallel we like to make.... is the idea of becoming the next Warner Brothers, which is a company that creates the content but they also produce the content, they also distribute, they also market. So we say that because Fine Bros and Warner Brothers is fun to say," says Benny. "But John [Hughes] is interesting in the sense of the brand of content that we make that's very social and very... you know, comedy with a heart. We also at the same time have a Joss Whedon aspect and JJ Abrams to us because we do a lot of geeky stuff too. And we're behind the camera, but have a following and fan base even though we're not on camera talent, kind of like those guys."
Their React series, which launched its own channel last month and has already accumulated 1.5 million subscribers, perhaps best exemplifies that combination of ambitions. It's commercially successful, appeals to the masses while still feeling sincere, and connects with viewers from different age groups — there is something for almost everyone in videos like one, for example, where current teenagers try to express their feelings about Kurt Cobain.
"The Fine Bros are excellent content producers that understand…and (over the past few years) likely helped shape and define success within the YouTube ecosystem. They are consistent and engaging," says Mike Henry, the CEO of Outrigger Media, which created OpenSlate YouTube analytics platform. "They rely on their YouTube audience to suggest new videos or trends for a reactionary video. They take videos we're all watching and turn it into a communal experience that elicit funny (old technology, Skrillex, etc.) or heartwarming (i.e. Bullying, gay marriage, etc.) responses."
But the React series is also a kind of group meta-meditation on YouTube and its weirdness.
In one video, for example, a group of older people watch YouTube's current most-watched channel, which consists mostly of a Swedish 24-year-old broadcasting himself as he plays video games. Most of them are baffled — "Who would want to watch someone else play video games?" — until one of the older men argues it's no different from watching a professional play basketball.
"We're time capsuling," Benny says. "I think a lot of people come to the show as a news source to educate themselves about what's going on on the internet, what's going on in the world. What are people really talking about? What is K-Pop, et cetera?"
Of course, the series also marks the duo's first major — and long-awaited — step into mainstream Hollywood, with their Nickelodeon version of the show in production with Nick Cannon's company.
The Fine Brothers, like other popular YouTube creators, are at a crossroads: building robust companies with sizable staffs and unprecedented audiences, and increasingly, an opening door at major studios.
"I think there's a huge missed opportunity from traditional media to be working with all of us at a period of time both need each other to do some of this," Benny says. "Down the road, who knows if all us will need them as much as we need them now."