MrBeast’s ‘Real Life Squid Game’ and the price of viral stunts

How Hollywood-budget YouTube videos impact creators

First, everyone was talking about “Squid Game,” the Korean psychological thriller that became Netflix’s biggest series launch ever, with 142 million viewers. Now, everyone’s talking about YouTuber MrBeast’s recreation of the show’s titular fight-to-the-death, which racked up 142 million views in eight days. (Don’t worry, no one was killed).

Jimmy Donaldson (MrBeast), the 23-year-old who was just named YouTube’s Top U.S. Creator for the second year in a row, built sets and made costumes for 456 competitors, making the video look as close to the Netflix show as possible. And, like the popular series, the last player standing would win a life-changing cash prize — in Donaldson’s case, competitors had the chance to win $456,000.

There are a number of reasons why Donaldson’s “Squid Game” is almost as popular as “Squid Game” itself, at least by the number of views. For one thing, YouTube is free, and Netflix isn’t.

But Donaldson’s virality comes at a cost. His 25-minute video required a whopping $3.5 million to make, he said on Twitter. For comparison, the nine-episode series cost Netflix a total of $21.4 million, averaging out to about $2.4 million per hour-long installment.

Even the most popular YouTube creators like Donaldson can’t measure up to the resources that a publicly traded, global company like Netflix has. So for creators who make shocking, stunt-based videos like Donaldson, it’s getting harder to do something unprecedented, like recreating “Squid Game.”

If you haven’t had nine hours to spare since the September release of “Squid Game,” here’s the premise: If you’re so deep in debt that you’ll never get out, why not fight to the death for the chance to win unfathomable wealth? This is director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s response to South Korea’s debt crisis, but international viewers can relate — the U.S. has $1.73 trillion in student debt, increasing by more than 91% over the last 10 years. If you’re someone who fears that one bad dental visit could deplete your life savings, it’s not hard to relate to these characters’ desperation for quick cash.

In “Squid Game,” it turns out that a ring of wealthy elites created the games for their own entertainment — why not pay poor people to fight to the death if they agree to the terms of the game?

But in a far less extreme way, MrBeast’s videos do the same thing. He gives out large sums of money to ordinary people, entertains millions of viewers with his brand of performative philanthropy, then reaps the financial benefit of their attention.

Predictably, MrBeast’s “Squid Game” video lacked the emotional resonance and suspense that made the Netflix show so compelling — since there is nothing at risk for the participants, the stakes feel about as high as a daytime rerun of “Wheel of Fortune.” But Donaldson has pioneered — and perfected — this style of YouTube content: Do something outrageously absurd, and people will watch, because, on YouTube, time watched is money. However, the cost to capture users’ attention when pursuing this model requires an increasingly heftier investment over time.

As the creator economy grows, some YouTubers’ budgets are growing, too. But with the precarious nature of this work, falling into the red could be dangerous. While Netflix’s “Squid Game” has made at least $891.1 million so far (almost 42 times the size of its budget), Donaldson might not recoup his own “Squid Game” investment.

Going big until you can’t go bigger

In Donaldson’s video “How I Gave Away $1,000,000,” the creator explains how he got started making this sort of content when Quidd, a digital collectibles app, offered him a $10,000 brand deal for a video. He filmed a video giving the $10,000 to a homeless person, and then Quidd kept paying him to make more videos, so it snowballed from there.

Today some of his most popular videos include even larger investments, like “I Ate A $70,000 Golden Pizza,” “Last To Leave Circle Wins $500,000” and “Donating $100,000 To Streamers With 0 Viewers.”

In September, MrBeast told the creator-focused YouTube channel Colin and Samir that he spends $4 million every month to make his videos, and while some outperform his expectations, other videos don’t. He said that his video “I Sold My House For $1” cost over $1 million to make, but he recouped less than half a million from ad revenue, and sponsorship money didn’t make up the difference. But as long as some videos do better than he expected, a slightly-less-viral video here and there won’t kill him.

“Once you know how to make a video go viral, it’s just about how to get as many out as possible,” he told Bloomberg last year. “You can practically make unlimited money.”

Forbes estimated that Donaldson made $24 million on YouTube between June 2019 and June 2020 (YouTube isn’t his only income source – he also runs a ghost kitchen called MrBeast Burger, streams on Twitch and collaborates with a number of brands). But he said in an interview with fellow viral star Logan Paul that he puts most of his income directly back into his videos.

“If I make three or four million dollars a month, I just spend it on videos the next month,” Donaldson said. “We literally have like, razor-thin margins, and just reinvest it all.”

The problem with this clickbait model is that viewers become desensitized to these high-budget YouTube videos, which requires creators to keep upping the ante.

The comedian Demi Adejuyigbe also encountered this issue with his yearly videos in which he dances to “September” by Earth, Wind, & Fire.

In his first viral video in 2016, he simply danced in his bedroom wearing a homemade shirt that read “SEPT 21” on the front and “THAT’S TODAY” on the back. The following year, he got some fancy balloons, then in 2018, he enlisted a children’s choir, and in 2019, he hired a mariachi band — you get where this is going. This year, he decided he wasn’t going to make any more videos, because it’s too time-consuming and challenging to keep going bigger and better every year — so he went all out one last time and ended up raising over $1 million for charity from fans. But these “September” videos aren’t Adejuyigbe’s bread and butter. Going viral might have helped him get noticed in Hollywood, though. In between plotting each year’s “September” videos, he earned writing credits on shows like “The Good Place” and “The Late Late Show with James Corden.”

A fashion and beauty creator, Safiya Nygaard, is another example. She first developed a following as a video producer at BuzzFeed, but left to invest in her own channel and retain more independence. Nygaard differentiated herself in the beauty space by doing “bad makeup experiments,” like “Melting All My Nude Lipsticks Together” or “Mixing All My Foundations Together.” Over a year, this escalated to “Melting Every Candle From Bath & Body Works Together” and “Melting Every Lipstick From Sephora Together.” For the latter video, she used more than 600 lipsticks — and with Sephora lipstick prices ranging from around $10 to $50, Nygaard’s bill was so expensive that she filmed the Sephora cashier calling her bank to verify the purchase.

But once you buy every lipstick at Sephora, you can’t really push further. Now, Nygaard updates her YouTube channel with almost 10 million subscribers only once or twice a month, though she started posting on Instagram Reels and TikTok every few days. Sometimes, even a TikTok might require a pricey purchase — in one popular TikTok, Nygaard styles Balenciaga’s $1,350 toe-heels. Still, that’s a small purchase compared to 117 Bath and Body Works candles, or 600 Sephora lipsticks.

Creators like Nygaard and Adejuyigbe have been able to pivot away from this high-cost, sometimes-low-reward content. But Donaldson’s high-budget videos are his lifeblood. He can’t stop making more and more extreme content if he wants his channel to remain at the top of the YouTube food chain.

Funding the creator economy

When startups need cash to fund the growth of their business, they turn to venture capital. Now, some firms are looking at viral creators as an investment opportunity in a time when video creation costs are growing. Venture capital firm SignalFire says that creators are the fastest-growing small businesses, and some firms like Sam Lessin’s Slow Ventures take that idea to the next level. Slow Ventures recently invested $1.7 million in the future of YouTuber Marina Mogilko, whose channel is called Silicon Valley Girl — they will get 5% of her earnings as a creator for the next 30 years.

Investing in literal people might seem sketchy, but assuming everyone involved has good intentions, is offering artists a financial cushion really the worst thing in the world? This is essentially what happens in Hollywood already. A production company might buy a script, hire talent and market a film, only for it to be a flop at the box office.

But creators — literal people — aren’t startups. And what happens when you keep trying to out-do yourself? You burn out.

It’s possible that the cushion of venture funding could take some financial burden off of creators, but the pressure to appease stakeholders could also add more stress.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki acknowledged the growing issue of burnout in a letter to creators in 2019.

“I’ve heard some creators say they feel like they can’t take a break from filming because they’re concerned their channel will suffer,” Wojcicki wrote. “If you need to take some time off, your fans will understand. After all, they tune into your channel because of you.”

YouTube’s product team found that creators only garner more views once they come back from breaks. But Drake McWhorter told CNN at the time that he didn’t think this was true.

“YouTube is a treadmill,” McWhorter said. “If you stop for a second, you’re dead.”

It’s easier than ever to go viral online, but that doesn’t always mean it’s easy to capture viewers’ attention in the long term — and to make a living on the internet, you need an audience. Now that MrBeast is making YouTube videos with Hollywood-sized budgets, yet still making a “razor-thin” profit, we have to ask: Who’s winning in the creator economy? At the end of the day, the success of “Real Life Squid Game” may be better news for YouTube, or even Netflix, than it is for Donaldson.