I had the great fortune to speak with Sunshine and her mother, Mercedes Rose, a few weeks back -- what a team! They are so much like the TV mother/daughter duo they idolize -- The Gilmore Girls. Sunshine (her real name is a secret) is truly a discovery. Witty, smart, hip and cute, she's a natural in front of the camera. And her mom "Kat," as well, is witty and purty, and quite the presences on camera, heself.
But, "mom" is also one of the creative forces behind the success of Sunshine Girl. Alongside her is the unseen show creator Nick Hagen. It was Nick who approached Mercedes with his idea of a girl who vlogs about the ghosts that haunt he. And together, they created Sunshine, starring Mercedes real life daughter. The rest is web history.
I got to run some questions by Nick, recently.
Nick Hagen: Well the original concept was a video blog so it had to feel natural and in real life things take time to develop, including an audience. But being that I had a clear concept from the beginning I think the first videos didn't seem random, like some projects similar to this have. The point of the vlog was stated in the very first video so people clearly understood what they were watching. Something I felt like Lonleygirl did an awful job at and why I never watched more than a couple episodes of that one. It's also what I feel like projects like Marblehornets do wrong as well. They're very successful and many people are intrigued by their videos but I bet they lose a lot of viewers who just don't have the patience of trying to figure out what the videos are all about. As far as structure going forward, I look at each batch almost like a season so the first 80 or so videos was like season 1, where we had to build up to some sort of climax and resolution but still leave the window open for more to happen down the road.
BR: You already knew Mercedes and Sunshine, correct?
NH: I knew Mercedes, not Sunshine. But I had a feeling and luckily she was even more of a talent than I hoped. She's got that "it" quality that people love and in something like this, where you have to build an audience from scratch, that's priceless. And it's extremely rare to find someone at the age of 16 willing to commit so much time and effort into a project they have no idea whether it will be a success or not so I was happy about that as well. But I did know Mercedes and her drive and it (almost :-) matches mine so I knew she could keep up with me.
BR: Did you plan for things to get as wild as they did, from the start? Or did you get inspiration as the fanbase grew?
NH: I planned for things to get big, much bigger if we can getting the funding but I think the tone of the show has been dictated by the fanbase. I always knew I wanted it to be fairly family friendly, appeal to teens, but I think the tone got a little more over the top as we went along. Honestly it was in an effort to allow people to just have fun with the videos and not worry about Sunshine so much. I want that emotional connection from the fanbase but I don't want them losing sleep over the well being of Sunshine so I started making it a little less realistic. But yes, it will hopefully get much bigger and crazier. I've got plans...
BR: How about those fans? What's the wildest accusation you've heard from an irate fan?
NH: Well we get the accusation that we're purposely trying to lie to people to upset them and take advantage of them. That's a pretty common accusation. I'm always surprised by that since I firmly believe we're attempting to do a good thing and bring entertainment and joy into people's lives. I can't imagine putting all this effort into something just to try and upset people. But definitely the wildest thing I heard from a fan was that we were sending them secret messages in our videos and they were going to sell their house to get enough money to travel and see Sunshine.
BR: Those fans who get upset and cry "fake" still stick around anyway (I would guess that they do)?
NH: Yes, we have people calling us fake all the time but there's very few die hard people out there who consistently stick with it. Most of our fake comments come from people who have only watched one or two videos and don't really get what the show is all about. They're often shouted down by our other fans, letting them know that this isn't a secret. At the beginning we had lots of people with what could only be described as a personal vendetta against us. They were bound and determined to prove to the world we were fake, but as time has gone by, the show has gotten more fictional, and Sunshine is so likable, most of these people have let it go.
BR: Did you conceptualize the show as being fairly family friendly? As I was saying to Sunshine and Mercedes, I admired how "clean cut" the show is. No language or violence, and Sunshine is a "normal" kid, not spazzing about fashion and boys and material stuff. It's just a show about a good kid, with a healthy curiosity. How much of that was planned, and how much of that is Sunshine and Mercedes?
NH: Yes I did. I very much knew I wanted to go after that market and that tone. I've got three kids, Mercedes has three kids, we obviously want to teach our kids what is important in life and the typical teen girl character created by Hollywood has it all wrong in my opinion. In our series there's an underlying value of family and following what you think is right and what your passion is. Sunshine listened to the ghosts in her house and found out who she was. The metaphor is clear enough I think. As for actually achieving the family friendly, strong female tone, that's very much Mercedes and Sunshine in real life. They make it a reality.
BR: Are you working from a better budget now? And if so, will Sunshine Girl get into more freaky stuff?
NH: Better would be one way to put it since we started out with very little it doesn't take much to make the budget better. We haven't sought out outside investors for various reasons but it's mostly about control. Our budget is strictly based off YouTube revenue and every penny (and some of our own) goes back into production. So as our audience grows our budget will grow. We will definitely be taking Sunshine on some crazy adventures!
BR: Congratulations on the expansion of your YouTube channel! Do you have any thoughts about expanding Sunshine outside of YouTube?
NH: Thanks! Yes, I think it would work well on TV. A fictionalized reality show like what The Office does with comedy. I really like the freedom that style of filmmaking allows and the ability to break the fourth wall and freak people out. Imagine Sunshine with a documentary crew! Oh, and we're working on a film related to Sunshine as well. It might actually shoot this winter so that's fun.
BR: How about, any other show ideas, for YouTube or otherwise?
NH: YES! I've got two really killer concepts that I think would be a huge hit on YouTube. One requires a decent budget, makeup and effects, and one just requires the time. Oh, I'd also like to do another YouTube channel like Sunshine only gear it toward a little older, male audience, work to keep it as real as possible, and really try to freak people out. And TV, I've got a couple fun concepts I've been trying to get a network to notice for a while now. Here's a pilot for one http://vimeo.com/12270524
BR: Check it out folks! Thanks Nick. Good luck on the further adventures of Sunshine.
NH: Thanks a lot. Good luck on the blog!
Sunshine's Black Eye Kids movie... they need your support!
Go to Kickstarter