Burnie Burns of Rooster Teeth visits Digital Entrepreneurship Speaker Series

Michael Justin “Burnie” Burns visited Texas State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication as the seventh and final speaker of the Digital Entrepreneurship Speaker Series on Weds, April 22. Burns is the co-creator of the internet video series “Red vs. Blue” and co-founder of the production company Rooster Teeth.

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Digital media professor Jon Zmikly began the Q&A-style discussion by asking Burns to give a history of his career in digital production. Though he started as a biology pre-med student at the University of Texas in Austin, he switched his major to computer science during his senior year, due to his interest in the rise of the Internet in the mid-90s.

Burns also became interested in filmmaking. But instead of taking classes to learn film production, he grabbed and college buddy and decided to learn as they went.

“It took us 13 months to shoot and edit our film,” said Burns. “And that was just the beginning. The real challenge was the distribution, like getting the film into an independent film festival. You send your film in, and a committee of eight or nine people determine if your film can be screened in a room full of 200 people at a festival. We got a lot of nice rejection letters.”

Switching his focus, Burns and his friends decided to start putting their video content online. “Red vs. Blue”, the cartoon science fiction video series now hosted on Rooster Teeth, became somewhat of an overnight success. Today, RvB is the longest running series on the web with 13 seasons, and the second longest running series in science fiction, coming second only to “Dr. Who”.

To fund their production efforts and raise money for future projects, Burns and his team began selling premium subscriptions to their content, as well as merchandise. Rooster Teeth recently took to the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise money for their first feature-length film, “Lazer Team.”

“Indiegogo told us a goal of $1 million was too ambitious,” said Burns. “But in 12 hours, we had reached that goal. By the end of it, 22,000 supporters raised $2.2 million in this fundraising campaign.”

Burns explained that this campaign was the largest fundraising effort ever on Indiegogo, and the third largest crowdfunding campaign on the Internet, falling behind Veronica Mars and a Zach Braff film. Burns explained that using Indiegogo was a great promotional tool for their feature film.

“Crowdfunding is marketing,” said Burns. “It makes people aware.”

Burns then showed the audience the trailer for “Lazer Team,” the film that tells the “true story” of four unlikely heroes’ contact with extraterrestrials.

When asked his strategy for formatting and distribution of Rooster Teeth content, Burns explained that his company is “format agnostic,” as they do not plan content for specific distribution in a certain format.

“You never know what distribution is going to look like a year, eighteen months from now,” he said. “We’re reaching a point of massive convergence. We’re not just competing with other production companies, or other forms of entertainment, even. We are competing with Facebook, video games…we are competing with attention spans.”

Rooster Teeth logo, from RoosterTeeth.com

Rooster Teeth logo, from RoosterTeeth.com

Though Burns learned much about film distribution on his own through trial-and-error, he pointed back to his college education for providing the building blocks to his knowledge of film production.

“The fundamentals, how to edit, how to write…those things don’t change over time,” he said.

Advice for Young Filmmakers

For those in the audience aspiring for careers in film, Burns offered the following advice:

“As a young person, time is on your side,” he said. “Anytime you spend honing in on your craft is time well spent. You have about 40 bad movies in you, so go ahead and get those out of the way.”

Because Burns works with his friends at Rooster Teeth, he explained that the work environment can sometimes feel like a band.

“Hardships comes and go,” he said. “But after a while, you learn how to work with each other.”

He used the analogy that Rooster Teeth is also a lot like “Saturday Night Live” when it comes to viewership.

“People start watching our shows because they like a certain character or writer,” he said, “but they get into the habit of watching it even after those people have been replaced.”

In an effort to grow their fan base, Rooster Teeth has tried several strategies, such as promoting their content on the MTV show “TRL” and placing several seasons of RvB on Netflix.

“We went on TRL in 2006, and we saw literally no impact,” said Burns. “And Netflix is a metrics black hole. It doesn’t share how many viewers you have.”

As for the future of Rooster Teeth, Burns predicts the company will do more live streaming, and will continue to produce high quality content. He also hopes the company will produce more informational content, outside of gaming and tech.

Burnie Burns, Official Twitter Photo

Burnie Burns, Official Twitter Photo

Burns advised the students in the audience to keep the educational fire burning.

“Learning how to learn something is the best part of education,” he said. “Spend your life feeding that passion for learning.”

The SJMC would like to thank Burnie Burns for taking the time out of promoting his new film to visit the Digital Entrepreneurship Speaker Series. For more information about Burns or any of the other speakers in the series, please visit the #TXSTDigital website.

by Cheyenne Meyer

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