In just 18 months, the Auckland-based YouTube channel has gone from working from home and out of cafes to a brand new multi-million dollar studio. Sam Brooks asks the trio how they pulled it off, and what they’re planning to do with it.
On December 4, a video called “The most useless customer ever” was uploaded by New Zealand based filmmakers Viva La Dirt League to YouTube. It’s a comedy sketch, very much in the vein of the rest of their video game adjacent humour, following a sales attendant at a store called TechTown attempting to help a dishevelled man in a robe who wants to buy his girlfriend a present. He’s so hapless that he struggles to list not only her personality traits but even her name. However, he assumes the sales attendant will be able to help him, because she, too, is a woman. Frustrated, she has him thrown out because he is, quote: “The worst.”
As of writing, this video has over half a million views. It is one of four Viva La Dirt League has uploaded this week to their six million subscribers, most of which are filmed in their brand new Henderson studio. The new space, which opened in October, includes two completely modular sets and Auckland’s largest green screen. They raised a whopping $4.2m to contribute to its purchase, demolishment, and renovation.
How on earth did a trio of YouTubers get that kind of money, and where from?
Back in 2021, when we last talked, the Viva La Dirt League team had just conceived of doing a fundraiser to build their own studio. Since their first video 10 years prior, they had amassed nearly four million subscribers on YouTube, and had a healthy following on Patreon, where over 4,000 subscribers paid them a combined $27,000 a month for access to additional content (today those numbers sit at over 8,000, contributing over $45,000). “We realised that Viva [La Dirt League] was starting to grow to the point where we were getting more actual employees, and enough of a contractor crew that we needed to actually have a physical space,” says Adam King, one of the core trio behind VLDL (and also in front of the camera).
The team were really sick of operating out of cafes and their own homes, and found that the only time they would end up getting together, as friends and as co-workers, was when they were writing or filming. “We just knew we would be way more productive, and the quality of the work would be of a higher standard if we could come together and just… work together,” says Alan Morrison, another of the trio.
It seemed nigh-on impossible to fund it themselves – if you think a house is expensive, I suggest you look at how expensive a studio is to build. Then Rowan Bettjeman, the third in the trio, had the idea to do a Kickstarter.
While initially they objected (internally), reasoning that they couldn’t ask their fans for a mortgage, they realised that it would actually be a sensible thing to do – if they framed it correctly. “Instead of focussing on the mortgage, we focussed on what the studio allows us to do, which would be to increase the production value of our shows, create brand new shows, and increase the output of how much work we can do,” Bettjeman says.
“It turned out it was the right way to go.”
Their goal in their heart of hearts was to get $1 million NZD (“at best!”, they stress). The project launched at midnight on February 16, 2022, with a modest goal of $100,000. The reward tiers ranged from $1 (“our love”) through to $500 video messages, right up to a $30,000 reward for a studio tour (five of these ended up being purchased).
Morrison recalls that this was the moment where it felt real. “I was with some of my best mates, watching proof that what we were doing was beloved,” he says. It was our collective dream of what we wanted Viva to be, becoming really tangible based off of this number going up and up and up.”
“Suddenly, it didn’t seem impossible.”
Just two days later, their campaign crossed the million dollar line. By the time it closed 23 days later, 31,720 backers had pledged roughly $4.5 million.
After the team received the money, it took them a few months to actually find a space that would suit them, after much umming and ahhing. Would they find somewhere and move straight in or would they actually need to build something? The result ended up being more of a compromise.
The Henderson space they’re currently in was what they call “a reasonably run-down warehouse”. After they bought it, they had to get a lot of it demolished, then get new plans drawn for the building (including their elaborate sets). They bought the space in September 2022. In October 2022, less than a year after the Kickstarter launched, they started the demolition.
King largely took the reins on the space, due to having a family who “knew how to build things”. However, they couldn’t go to a studio building company, mostly because those companies don’t exist. King estimates you could “count on one hand” how many people have actually built a studio in this country.
“I don’t think we realised at the beginning of this process how much work would go into deciding little things,” King says, pointing to the lights in the disarmingly clean meeting room we’re in. “Like these lights. Tiny decisions like that, or ceiling tiles! And little fire alarms.”
“Or just how we were gonna fit everyone in here,” adds King.
Thankfully, it ended up being the right size (“only just”, Bettjeman notes).
The studio is a remarkable feat. The set that serves as TechTown has the uncanny feeling of being a real EB Games, except if you look a little bit closer, you can tell that all the brands (over 20 of them) are all fake. The other set serves as the basis for their D&D themed sketches and series, and looks as close to an adventurer’s tavern as anything this side of a Lord of the Rings production. Both are soundproofed and can be turned around and shot from any angle. The third space, with the green screen, is available for other filmmakers to hire.
What the studio has meant is that the film sector, more widely, is starting to take notice of their success. It’d be hard not to – VLDL has the kind of reach (and support) that any New Zealand filmmaker would sell out for, and they’ve done it while staying true to the comedy that made them a success. They’ve even signed with Hollywood heavyweight agency CAA, opening the doors for even bigger platforms for their work.
“It takes the physical studio and the number four-point-two million dollars for people to go, ‘you’ve got fucking what?’”, says King. When they opened the studio back in October, they invited a large number of industry professionals, who were “blown away” at the scale that the group had started to operate at.
Despite this, it’s still only a select group of the industry who have started to appreciate them. Morrison believes it’s because their work ends up on YouTube. “They just see us as YouTubers when we’re filmmakers. We’re legit filmmakers.”
Meanwhile, their audience is growing faster than ever. Just this week, they passed six million subscribers; not long after, they passed three billion views on the platform. “All of our videos, for the most part, exist in the same level of importance to the fans,” King says. “Someone could come to us through a video that’s five years old and we’re like, ‘What is that video again?” (This is fair enough – they have over 1,700.)
While the most recent months have been the most important to the trio, to the fans, everything’s important. “Their favourite video is often one we filmed on a 5D Mach 3, no lighting, road mic, and just the three of us,” Bettjeman says. “It’s such a testament that it doesn’t matter, necessarily, if you’ve got a massive budget or a small one… the fans like what they like.”
So despite the impressive nature of the space, and also the fundraising that lead to it, the core parts of what have made the trio (and the roughly 25 people they regularly employ, not counting contractors) successful remain, even though the scale is much larger. They release four videos a week across their two channels, and even though they have the studio, much of their work is shot on location across Auckland.
“I’m excited to see the scale of what we’re making increase in terms of not just production value, but the duration,” says Morrison. “We want to start making longer form content, like Baelin’s Route. We proved that we could make a half hour short film that’s a complete package.” (There is a murmur of a potential feature film in the years to come during our chat.)
Where once they used to meet up on set with zero idea of what they’d be filming, now they have a full team, weeks full of back-to-back meetings, and scripts nailed to the wall. It’s a massive shift from where they were, even in the time directly preceding them purchasing the studio. All three are excited to “get Viva back”. The past two years have been hard, due to many of the reasons why it has been hard for many Aucklanders – Covid-19, floods, cost of living – but now that the studio is up and running, the new era isn’t just dawning, it’s here.
“The company is turning into a proper established production company, and it needs to,” says King. “But the three of us, and everyone else that works here as well, is trying to keep that Viva feel, which is fun, wacky, and things can change on the fly.”
“I bet you that sentiment is really common with so many small businesses,” adds Morrison.
“Oh, absolutely, but we mean it!” jokes Bettjeman.
“We genuinely are trying, though,” says Morrison. “We’ve had meetings where people are trying to streamline the filming process, for our benefit, with the best intentions, but streamlining certain aspects of it takes away some of the….”
“The magic,” says King.
“The spontaneity,” says Bettjeman.
“The chill vibes,” completes Morrison.
If anything has changed, the fans aren’t noticing. They’re watching, they’re liking, they’re subscribing. Even better? They’re paying.